Worthen on Conservative Church Growth

Molly Worthen says that the Stark / Finke church growth analysis does not hold water. Stark and Finke said that churches which are conservative and demand more of their followers experience the most growth. This analysis was the rage a decade ago. She writes:

Stark’s and Finke’s book was panned by historians, largely because they cherry-picked statistics to divide American churches into “winners” and “losers” without nuanced attention to historical context.  If you step back and assess the big picture, few conservative churches are growing anymore (the Assemblies of God is, but by less than 2 percent per year). Evangelicals’ recent strategies—ranging from a hipster makeover to appeal to the Millennial crowd to the mistaken hope that millions of Latinos are leaving Catholicism and becoming conservative Protestants—cannot hold off the world-historical forces of secularization. As the historian David Hollinger has argued, even if liberal churches have lost the battle for butts in the pews, the steady advance of civil rights, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation suggests that they are winning the wider culture.

You’ve probably heard that the United States has been the exception to the decline of organized religion in the developed West over the last 200 years, and that’s true. But American exceptionalism has merely delayed secularization, not halted it. Poll numbers—rising numbers of “nones” who say they have no religious affiliation; slowly falling rates of church attendance—suggest that even if Americans continue to believe that life has a supernatural dimension, many may be drifting out of institutionalized worship. Traditional religious organizations are losing their grip on the public sphere and their influence in the lives of individuals. “All things considered, I think that religion is slowing down, in decline … everything is clearly going in the decline direction,” said Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, who has written one of the best synthetic studies of the polling data on contemporary American religion.

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