One of the constant refrains from those who want Christian denominations to embrace gay marriage, abortion, and/or the latest progressive social aim to come along, is that embracing these doctrines will help to stem the membership and attendance decline of many churches. The thinking is that some in the West reject Christianity because of its countervailing views on these issues. Therefore, if mainline churches simply capitulate to these new cultural norms, people will return to church.
That’s the theory. In practice, mainline churches that embrace modern sexual mores have seen their attendance fall as much or more than those that do not. Meanwhile, of the 15 largest Christian denominations in the United States, the only one that posted any growth last year was the conservative Assemblies of God. It’s a longstanding trend; surveys of the American public have found that the number of adherents to mainline denominations fell 10% between 1990 and 2008 while Pentecostals increased by 40% and self-described evangelicals exploded by nearly 400%.
A recent internal battle within the United Methodist Church provides an excellent petri dish of how changing doctrinal standards can drive a decline in attendance and membership. Currently within the denomination, members of the “Biblical Obedience” movement are offering up a lot of blustery talk about starting to run their churches like de facto liberal denominations where same sex marriage and sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are encouraged. If indeed taking a stand in favor of gay rights and gay marriage are the panacea for the UMC’s attendance problems, clearly their outspoken advocacy would have brought a surge in membership? But a detailed analysis shows that quite the opposite has occurred.
Rev. Stephen Heiss is a Binghamton, New York pastor who openly admitted on the Reconciling Ministries Network’s (RMN) blog to officiating several gay weddings over the years. Currently, he faces charges in the Upper New York Conference stemming from his admission in the blog post. But as John Lomperis previously noted, Rev. Heiss’ church in Binghamton has seen a significant drop in attendance over three years (28%), all while dubiously posting membership numbers ten times larger than actual attendance.
Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy currently faces a possible church trial for being in an open lesbian relationship and serves on the steering committee of the radically pro-homosexuality Methodists in a New Direction (MIND). The most recent records indicate that her congregation at the Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains, New York has seen attendance fall by a whopping 34.5% in two years. Perhaps more disturbing than the inability to hold onto lifelong members is that within those years, Tweedy’s church failed to add even a single member. Perhaps local LGBT individuals or their supporters were grateful for Tweedy’s work, but if so it failed to drive the mass conversion advocates seem to expect.
Recently the most high-profile case of rebellion against the Book of Discipline was the church trial of Lebanon pastor Rev. Frank Schaefer after Schaefer presided over the wedding of his gay son. Schaefer was suspended for 30 days and required to reaffirm his commitment to the Book of Discipline at the end of the suspension, or face a defrocking.
Although much of the reporting on the Schaeffer trial has been sympathetic towards the pastor, credit is due to The Washington Post for at least noting the manner in which Schaeffer’s actions have torn apart his once cohesive flock. The Post reported on how one church member burst into tears when testifying on how Schaeffer told her the Book of Discipline “didn’t have to be followed,” and how it led her to leave the church. Another former member spoke about how she left because Schaeffer “was trying to change our views.” The Post estimates that half of Zion United Methodist Church’s 250 members have abandoned it since the spring and estimates that only 60 showed up for service the past Sunday.
Even the church’s September newsletter includes a letter from Schaeffer admitting the church is in decline. “As you are certainly well aware, our church has gone through some tumultuous times in recent months. We have lost dear church family members and have experienced a period of decline.”
Bishop Melvin Talbert is perhaps the most well-known and outspoken advocate of the ‘Biblical Obedience’ movement. But as the IRD recently noted, Talbert “presided over imploding membership and schism” during his service as bishop of the Seattle and San Francisco areas. And although he has a long history of administration within the UMC, Talbert hasn’t personally pastored in over four decades. Certainly Talbert might be able to speak to the sensibilities of the West Coast elites of the UMC, but can he really claim to speak for the rank-and-file members?
It’s possible that correlation doesn’t imply causation, and that some outside factor is driving the massive exoduses from these churches (although the connection in the Schaeffer case appears clear). But at the very least, it isn’t clear why we should heed the advice of pastors and retired bishops who cannot stem the membership losses within their own church homes. Ultimately these pastors provide the perfect examples of what is driving membership decline within mainline Protestantism; ignoring the concerns and will of church members in order to take part in the latest cultural turmoil.