I received a bit of kickback to my Patheos column from last week in which I suggested that post-evangelicals should be marked by their attention to the global church, as opposed to evangelical infighting in the United States. The main argument I heard was that progressive or post-evangelicalism isn’t what is shaping global Christianity. Rather, it seems, conservative Christianity is growing at a rapid pace. Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on this, which I will work into my next column.

In gathering sources and information for this week’s piece, which will be published on Wednesday, I came across several essays on this topic that I thought I’d share. These will each figure into my own reflections on the growth of conservative Christianity, with a particular interest in Africa, which everybody seems to want to use as proof positive that this is a good thing.

So, I’m showing my hand, but I’ll stop there. Here are the links:

David Brooks got me started with his review/reflection on “The Book of Mormon.”

Then, Al Mohler responded, and brought my attention to this book.

Start there, and I’ll add any additional links as I come across them. And don’t forget to check Patheos’ Evangelical Portal on Wednesday morning for the column.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Why Conservative Churches Grow

  1. Philip N LaFountain, Sr. says:

    Kelley’s work should be read in tandem with Hoge, Johnson and Luidens “Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers.” Although Kelley’s thesis is dated, it is still valid, in my opinion. But, it is good to remember that he originally argued it in 1972, certainly not a post-modern era. lol Religious pluralism in America will increasingly have some cognitive fallout for Evangelicals of any brand paleo, neo, post or otherwise (als Berger). Christian Smith tried to show that Evangelicalism offers a significant challenge to modernity/postmodernity. His sub-cultural identity theory is enticing. My take on Evangelicalism is that it will gradually become more alienated from the Gospel (as if it weren’t already). I call for the rejection of such a meta-narrative, in favor of a more particularist view. I am asking Nazarenes to reject identification with Evangelicalism (joining the NAE following WWII was a major mistake for our denomination) and re-narrating our identity by drawing from the radical reformation through John Howard Yoder. I look forward to your take on conservative Evangelicalism.

  2. Derek says:

    I almost emailed you the Brooks article yesterday. Glad you’re “on it.” Looking forward to your column.

  3. Warren Wegrzyn says:

    This is a really interesting set of readings. Some historical perspective: at the turn of the 1800s, most Americans assumed Deism & Unitarianism would be the wave of American religious belief (a sensibility reflected by the fact that George Washington deified “Providence” and never wrote about “Jesus”). This was in the valley between the First and Second Great Awakenings. They had no idea that Evangelicalism was about to reshape the American religious landscape. Until the late 19th century American religious experience was increasingly conservative, with the grandchildren of the ‘Founding Fathers’ more likely to be ‘evangelicals’ (as we use it today) than their forebears. Oddly, Evangelicalism generally moved from low-class to high. Evangelicalism started to lag in the late 19th century (personally, I blame the Civil War more than ‘Darwin/Freud/science’ but that’s another story). Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism (both also generally working class movements) emerged in response to the lag of religious practice even though Christian social gospel movements were still very strong, though – temperance is a good case-in-point.

    Anyway – the long and the short of it is that the pattern of conservative growth is not a temporary phenomenon but an ongoing cycle that one could trace through church history (maybe back to Constantine?) – I would be curious how it would apply to non-church issues (the dogmatism of weight watchers, say or the ‘conservatism’ of being a red sox fan). It might have more to do with being in a “club” than anything theological? The more a group demands of you, the greater the status for being a participant, therefore more appeal to join in. Any time the participation is based on adherence to behavior (rather than birth, skill, or wealth) then it is a great way for people to attain social mobility. These would seem to point towards it, though I haven’t done enough reading in the sociology of groups to understand how it would apply backwards in history.

  4. JD says:

    The best academic work on the growth of global Christianity is The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins. If you have not at least familiarized yourself with his work, you do yourself and your audience a great disservice to spread your opinions on the matter without consulting some of the best scholarly work on the topic. Jenkins writes from the perspective of a sociologist rather than a theologian so he does not pass a lot of judgments on the data. He presents the information in a fairly unbiased manner although he does present some of his own reflections on the trends. Jenkins readily admits that a kind of “conservative” Christianity is definitely growing rapidly in the Global South, but it is a kind of Christianity that may not make traditional American Protestants very comfortable. Much of the growth has occurred within Pentecostalism and Roman Catholicism, two strands of Christianity know for syncretization with indigenous religious practices, beliefs, and traditions. Although many Christians in the Global South share conservative moral stances with their American evangelical counterparts, the two forms of Christianity are, in all actuality, very different. These new forms of Christianity are also equally at odds with the liberal mainline American tradition, which somehow always avoids the scrutiny and criticism of Patrol (as if evangelicals are the only Christians who are wrong about anything).

  5. We have some smart readers here at Patrol! Thanks for all your excellent ideas.

  6. I attended graduate school from 1978 to 1981, studying the Sociology of Religion. Kelley’s book was at the heart of the conversations social scientists and church leaders for about ten years after the book came out. While evangelical church leaders liked it because it suggested that having rules “worked”, the social scientists demonstrated that the argument was much too simple. Perhaps (according to my favorite bit of research) conservative churches combine higher birthrates with a marginally higher rate of holding onto their teenagers than was true of mainline churches.

    With apologies to my friend Phil who posted above, my personal critique of the Kelley argument is that while it may work, it’s a sociological distortion of the notion of the Kingdom of God. I’m reminded of something I heard Christian artist Ken Medema say in a concert decades ago about the homogeneous church principle: “it works, but I seriously doubt that it’s biblical!”

    The challenge with the Kelley thesis is that it requires fidelity to quasi-coercive expectations. It forces people into conformity so as to maintain their status. Now certainly, that is not going to happen in a Unitarian-Universalist church (who’s primary rule is “tolerate everyone except fundamentalists”), but it leaves little place for the authentic working out of Grace. It’s not that the mainline churches have it all right (although their “market share” is still very high). It’s that the Kelley thesis is a cheap substitute for the true community that becomes the Body of Christ.

  7. Philip N LaFountain, Sr. says:

    I’m with you John (and by the way, hello! I hope you are doing well)- I surely am not defending the theological merits of Kelley’s thesis, so no apologies necessary. And, I also think it is too simplistic. While I can appriciate the sociological insights that later development of the “strictness” thesis bear out, I certainly do not think that it is a theologically sound strategy for growth (how I hate the word strategy). I can be sociologically neutral at times, but if I were to offer a theological critique of the “strictness” thesis I would draw rather on John Howard Yoder and his notion of vulnerable patience as a Christian stance toward the world etc. which calls us to renounce coercive power.

  8. Philip N LaFountain, Sr. says:

    I’d be interested to hear from Warren whether he thinks church-sect theory or secularization theory still has any value for interpreting either the history of Evangelicalism or its contemporary expression. There are still some “old school” sociologists who argue that Evangelicalism is the product of secularization. My opinion is that seculariztion theory fails miserably to offer insight into religious change in Evangelicalism or American religion.

  9. Philip N LaFountain, Sr. says:

    And I agree with JD. What about critque of liberal mainline Protestantism, which, according to Peter Berger, has just about caved into modernity and “bargained” away just about everything that really matters in Christianity (i.e., incarnation and resurrection) and retained little but an eviserated ethic of brotherhood and mutual tolerance.

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