A GREAT PROBLEM AND A GREAT OPPORTUNITY
By Riley B. Case
I was sorting through some older files and found a clipping from
Progressive Christian Magazine--vol.178, no. 1)
) back in 2005 with my picture in it (which was probably why I cut it out). The article, by Andrew Weaver and Nicole Seibert, was an expose and critique of the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD). It seems because I have had connections with IRD I was brought into the critique. I had written an article in Good News magazine invoking a “deceptive formula” to justify an assault on the UMC. The “deceptive formula” linked the decline in membership in the UMC and other mainline churches as the consequence of liberals who got the church involved in “social action.” Mr. Case, according to the article, had observed that United Methodism was in the midst of a 100-year decline and that “the years of the decline correspond exactly to the years that liberalism and institutionalism have dominated Methodism.”
Guilty as charged, though I admit and confess my charge was overly simplistic. Many of us still claim that the erosion of theological integrity and Biblical authority is a major reason for Methodist decline for the last 100 years or so, but we must admit other factors were also operating and these need to be discussed. One argument from progressives for membership decline is that the church is hateful and unloving because it does not agree with what has become a major progressive article of faith, that the Bible is wrong or at least needs to be “contextualized” (re-interpreted in the light of modern knowledge and changing culture) and homosexual practice and transgender transition need to be blessed because otherwise the coming generations will simply reject Christianity for being on the wrong side of history. For those who call themselves moderates or mainstream the issue is not big enough to divide the church and we should all seek to live under a big tent (after we have removed all negative references to homosexual practice).
But there are other reasons given for why the UM in America is facing membership loss. In the article first mentioned in this column, Andrew Weaver and Nicole Siebert have their own explanation for mainline decline. The Case logic is wrong (membership decline is the result of compromised theology), they said:
“Correlation does not denote causation. Demographic research shows that the primary reason for the decline in membership in mainline churches and the growth of conservative churches has little to do with ideology and much to do with biology. Conservative church members have more children. According to findings published in the American Journal of Sociology….” (then is reported a study reporting higher birth rates and earlier childbearing among conservative women from 1900 to 1970).
When I first read this years ago I shook my head in disbelief. This didn’t make any sense to me. I still question the analysis but a look at some cultural trends in the past few years makes me wonder: are progressive families having fewer children and if so, why?
The January 27 issue of
includes an article, “Our Global Birth Dearth,” which records the falling birth rate in the world, at least among some communities. In America the rate of “expected children born per woman” has decreased from about 6 in 1850 to 1.72 today. Since 2006 the rate has fallen from 2.12 to 1.72. One reason, according to some researchers, is the “changing ideas about transcendence,” which, being interpreted, means it’s a religious thing. Religion declines, the birthrate goes down.
I would like to see some studies, but the arguments can be made on the basis of observation. Birth rates among Mormons, Pentecostals, Amish, and Muslims remain high. Of course, they believe in something. In my home county of LaGrange in Indiana, there were 5,000 Amish sixty years ago and those who thought they knew predicted that that would be the last generation. The pressures of a materialistic world were too great; Amish youth would desert en masse. Today, there are 14,000 Amish in LaGrange County. Not every group is being mesmerized by secular culture. But many are so mesmerized: birth rates among agnostics, progressives, feminists, the academic elite and, of course, among gays, lesbians and transgender persons are in sharp decline. The sexual revolution from the 1960s led to cohabitating without marriage, many more children born out of wedlock, single mothers, a push to approve all sorts of sexual experimentation, an aggressive gay lobby, and self-understandings of personhood described in such ways as non-binary and gender fluid.
All of this has been related to a general rebellion against generally accepted religious and cultural moral standards. Authority is shifting to the autonomous self. Whether something is right or wrong depends not so much on what the Bible teaches as on my own feelings. Today progressives say the only truth we need to know is “love,” but “love” is a subjective standard.
So we observe that progressive ideology, whether religious or non-religious, is not good for families, and because societal health is to a large extent based on family health, it is not good for society. And in the Christian world, it is not good for church health. At one time general conferences and bishops passed resolutions on the family altar and the sanctity of marriage and the family. There was an emphasis that the family was the major means by which faith is communicated from one generation to the next. No more. In 1976 Good News advocated for Family as the church’s missional priority for the quadrennium. The effort failed spectacularly. The present web page of the General Board of Church and Society lists 30 areas of concern and focus for the board. Not one is related to family, or to marriage. Family is sometimes seen as the problem, not the solution to our social confusion. Several years ago (2015), Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary at the General Board of Church and Society, wrote:
The General Board of Church & Society affirms and upholds in prayer the work of the United Methodist Church as it continues to discern its understanding of marriage (
). The implication is that the Bible and 2,000 years of church history have not established God’s will for marriage and our teaching needs to be updated.
Meanwhile evangelical Christians, in America and world-wide, are thriving (or at least holding their own) and part of this is because of the emphasis on the family. A new book,
The Twentysomething Soul
(Clydesdale and Garces-Foley, Oxford, 2019) reports on evangelicals: 80% of active young evangelicals want children and plan to join churches when they have children. The authors predict that whatever happens to the secularizing trends in America, evangelicals should be able to maintain their 30% of the young adult population. Another book,
The Myth of the Dying Church
(Stanton, Worthy, 2019) reports that despite fewer persons in America identifying with the institutional church, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who say their faith “is very important to them” who pray daily, who say they read the Bible at least once a week, is increasing.
Teachers and pastors and social workers see the consequences of dysfunctional homes. I have served for nearly thirty years with our local Rescue Mission. The mission has sought to be a safe place and a healing place for hundreds of hurting men and women, many of whom are referred directly from jail. Their problems are the usual: drugs, promiscuous sex, abuse, poverty, alienation, anger, rebellion. Very few of these, as they tell their stories, were raised in two-parent stable homes.
And so a great problem: A de-emphasis on the traditional Christian home is related to serious problems in society, and even in the church. It is difficult to sense any oneness in Christ when within the church there are such different approaches to such important matters. The understandings of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, and the established sexual standard as celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage is now being challenged, even by church leaders.
But perhaps there is a new opportunity. Rather than continuing the confusion and the acrimony let us take seriously the proposal of amicable separation. And whether the numbers are great or small let there be groups willing to lift up the sanctity of the home, safe places of faith and stability, where persons grow in faith and the body of Christ is made strong.
More on this in the next column.