What does the data say?

There is something called the GSS, the General Social Survey. It is a large sample survey of the US population regarding several interesting data-sets like religious identity. It starts roughly in the 1970’s and has continued through today. Here is wikipedia on the GSS.

Here is a post by much better social scientists than I, looking at protestant affiliation across time through the GSS. Their point is the dramatic decline of denominations. And this is true, but I also think it covers up something else. What I think it is covering up is actually a great sorting out. Inside each one of those grouping that they have put together is a constant core. What you are seeing is the collapse of a specific type of American Christianity and a sorting out along the way.

A note on the methodology. The list of denominations that the GSS records might be called “pre-schism”. Lutherans are pretty easy as we schism-ed early and often. What I’ve done is taken the ELCA bodies and the “Lutheran don’t know specifics” and put them in the same bucket. I’ve put the LCMS and the other specific bodies together. My assumption is that if you know enough to answer a specific denomination you have some tie to its theology. If you don’t there is an accomodationist grouping that doesn’t care about doctrine in any serious way. What I’m trying to construct is what I call a “proto-denomination”. The Episcopal Church, the PC-USA, the ELCA and the United Methodists are all in pulpit sharing arrangements with each other. What that means is that a minister who is ordained from one of those bodies is able to take a call or be a pastor of a congregation in any of those bodies. They have declared that any doctrinal divisions do not stand in the way of spiritually leading a congregation. So while church politics might keep them separate, and by church politics I mean that bishops in each body don’t want to risk losing a chair as long as the money holds out, those bodies are effectively one denomination or moving that way. I’ve kept all Baptists together. There are portions of presbyterians (PCA), Episcopal (Anglicans) and United Methodist that I’d have loved to split out, but this is the pre-schism problem. The GSS just doesn’t have those bodies. But when you look at the graph, I don’t think you need to see that to get the point. I’ve included the historically black denominations in the other line. And the last methodology note is that for the graph I’ve taken a 5 sample moving average to smooth the graph. What that means is that any one survey tends to jump around. For example, from 1986 survey to 1987 survey the Baptists went from 32% to 41% of the sample. That is the nature of a sample. Averaging over 5 years, each point having the preceding 5 survey points, helps to smooth such single survey effects.

This is the resulting graph:

GSS Prot Aff 5yrMA

Here is what I see – 3 flat lines and 2 converging lines. Baptists moving around 32% of protestants with little movement 80’s – today. Other/non-denom’s hovering around 23%. Lutherans hovering around 5%. The accomodationist proto-denomination hovering around 30% until roughly 2000 where it entered a steep decline. Around exactly the same inflection point “none” goes from 7% on a steep upward slope.

So, what does this mean? Well, other than nothing because I messed up the data which is a possibility, this is what I think. First, none of this says anything about how these groups do in comparison to the population. If the share of the population that gets lumped none-none (i.e. atheist/agnostic) is growing (and other surveys say it is) that is a separate point. This is within the religious world. Second, those groups that maintain differentiation are holding their own. Maybe not in reported membership. The LCMS has been declining in reported membership, but in survey response which is more akin to attendance than membership, it holds its own. Likewise with baptists and non-denoms. There might be an argument that just wait, the kink down is coming, but the fact that there are denominational groups that haven’t would seem to say not all denominations are the same. Third, the decline and growth is really a story of the accomodationist grouping. The great sort is happening or has happened. If you “believe, teach and confess” a specific doctrinal body you probably know it and find it significant enough to maintain. You might have troubles keeping some congregations going because the “don’t knows” have drifted away, but it should be possible given some political grace to stand. (What I mean by that is some congregational consolidation is probably necessary, and that might mean driving a little further for some, but the results should be larger and more vibrant/healthy congregations.) But the accomodationist grouping doesn’t have that core body of doctrine. They are not a theological group but a sociological grouping. And looking at the data, sociology is not enough to maintain them. There is a remnant in there – a portion of the UM, the PCA, the ACNA. My guess is that if we could split them out, the accomodationist group would look worse.

Spiritually, what I would say is what Christ says to the church of Philadelphia in Rev 3:10-11. “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”

My Spreadsheet

Paragraph to Ponder

On why there will not be a United Methodist Schism

Almost alone among the oldline Protestant denominations, United Methodism has not compromised its sexual teaching, primarily because its membership is global, and the overseas churches are growing while the U.S. church continues its decline. Non-U.S. delegates were 40 percent of the total at the 2012 General Conference and likely they will be 50 percent in 2016. These conservative, mostly African churches ensure that as long as United Methodism is global, there will be no liberalizing our sexuality standards. Interestingly, as United Methodism continues to lose hundreds of thousands of members in the U.S., it is now possibly the 9th largest denomination globally, thanks to Africa.

This situation has caused a few liberals of late to ponder whether liberals should possibly leave, advocate division, or at least stop fighting. Here is a new development with potentially interesting consequences. But there is virtually no precedent in American, or global, religious history of liberals creating NEW denominations. Liberals may take over already existing denominations, but when have they generated new ones? It’s very rare.

Why would that be the case? (FYI, the LCMS in seminex days might be one counter example, but still the AELC lasted less than 10 years if I remember correctly.) Why do “conservatives” splinter, but “liberals” never leave? Some of it has to be that “liberals” have only very rarely lost denominational politics. (Again the LCMS seems to be the only place I know of were the “liberals” are the political incompetents.) What is it about differing psychologies?

Denominations, Traditions & Teleology

There is a big word for you. Ontology is the statement of origins. Teleology is the statement of endings. The ontological argument is the argument for the existence of god* that boils down the unmoved mover – it all had to come from some where. Teleology is the opposite. It all has to go somewhere. The teleology of an embryo is to become a baby (sorry if that makes pro-choice a little uncomfortable). Religiously we say things like Jesus Christ, the alpha and the omega. The ontology and the teleology.

So why is Parson Brown stumbling around in Philosophy class? Well, Roger Olsen has written a man-bites-dog essay about denominations. All being good post-moderns we hear the world denomination and go “eww”, right? Dr. Olsen confesses his undying love for them, hence man-bites-dog, very interesting. And in the middle of it he says this.

I recently interacted with a well-known ecumenical theologian who has been intimately involved with the World Council of Churches for many years. He expressed the hope of someday seeing one worldwide Christian denomination. I don’t share his hope. He portrayed the existence of multiple denominations as evidence of “brokenness” in the body of Christ. I don’t see them that way. At least the plurality of denominations does not have to evidence brokenness in the body of Christ.

Now, let me first say that my gut loves this article and what it says. It is not that I have undying love for denominations – I don’t. What I do like are clear statements of belief – like this one, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord. As Lutherans we say we “believe, teach and confess” a bunch of things. If you don’t agree, you might still be a Christian, but you are not a Lutheran. For example, if you believe that “God is unwilling that all people repent and believe in the Gospel” you might make a perfectly good Calvinist. When you are worried that your are one of those people God has it in for on your death bed, come back to Luther and make a good confession. That puts me more in the Traditions wing. But, the lingering question comes from John 17:20-23. Jesus wishes that we are all one.

Is that a statement of ontology, we all have our being in Christ? Is that a statement of teleology, we all will be joined in one church? An enduring strain of Christianity longs for that prayer as a teleological reality. If we were not such sinners, the church would be one structure here and now. And there is truth there. There is one church – I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as the creed says. But is there any way to see the results of the reformation as a good thing as Dr. Olson clearly does?

If I was going to attempt to answer yes, I have to see Jesus prayer as one of ontology. We all have our foundation and being in Christ alone. I am so used to thinking of Jesus’ prayer as being unanswered in the here and now and taking it as teleological that I’m not sure. It is easier to think in terms of a messed up world. That is probably why I’m a Lutheran and Dr. Olson is an Arminian. He can escape original sin while I can’t.

* – the god of philosophy is not the revealed God of the Bible.

Things that can’t go on, eventually don’t…

As the Pastor of a smaller congregation (I can’t really say small anymore because our average attendance now places us around the 50th percentile), also as a pastor who had a successful run doing something else before, articles like this pop up on my screen. Truth be told, this is part of the reason I entered the ministry. Certain things do need to change. Change in the church is really hard. It was basically my understanding that most of the current leadership just didn’t get it, weren’t willing to do the necessary things, or are following completely short-sighted strategies.

The entire short article is interesting on church size, pastoral supply and demand, training and leadership. As with most “sky is falling” or maybe “paradigms are shifting” problems, it is the weakest in the prevailing paradigm that pay the brunt of the cost. In the institutional church that is the seminarian or the youngest pastors. We are still requiring 8 years of education (expensive education at that), to put someone into the ministry. I graduated as an know-nothing engineer with a simple BSME 15 years ago. My starting salary 15 years ago as an engineer by co-incidence was the same salary I got at my ordination. (Think for a second about how the more typical new minister will ever pay for that 8 years of education.) Things that can’t go on eventually stop. Denominations need to decide if they want an educated clergy. If they do, they need to pay for it either up front in a free tuition seminary, or later in living salaries that can pay education debts. The downside to not addressing this (and believe me, that is what we are doing, not addressing), the downside is that the only people entering and leaving seminaries are those independently wealthy, those without enough on the ball to figure out the math, or saints. We can pray for saints, but if you are Protestant you better pray for a pair of saints because the wife needs to take that vow of poverty as well.

I have a bigger problem with the line that the writer takes (and that most denominational officials take) regarding congregations and pastoral needs. They all take the line that every small congregation needs to get a pastor. And they try to create part-time ministers or ministers who work a day job and minster to some 20 or 30 worshiping congregation outside that. This response is completely understandable from power dynamics, but completely misguided. People have been voting with their feet for decades walking to the big congregations that offer everything. It has left the country dotted with small little depopulated churches desperately trying to hold onto their own identity and existence. These congregations vote and they talk. They pick up the phone and complain to denominational officials when they don’t have a minister. The seminaries need paying bodies. The denominational official wants to be re-elected. Everything in the system argues for the “we need more pastors” line leaving it to the just graduated seminarian to figure out what to do with $70,000 in debt and a congregation of 20 that can’t pay for insurance or a real wage.

It is incredibly short sighted to be following or encouraging that path. That path just leads to self-pitying congregations wrapped up in a declining and small existence, bitter ministers deciding that selling cars is better, and a continuation of the approach of “good enough for church work”. On one hand this is a time to plant. If there is a small congregation that is willing to be active (i.e. function like a church plant with that passion) get a lager congregation to adopt them as an outreach. On the other hand it is a time to reap. If the smaller congregation isn’t willing to return to their first love, it needs to find a merger partner. And here is where modern grass-roots ecumenical thinking is possible (as opposed to denominational lead expensive ecumenical soirees). In most towns there is probably a Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian church each with 30 or less worshipers and a decaying building and each more or less singing from the same hymnbook. Yes, there are ghastly formal theological issues. No, those issues rarely impact the lives of the laity who work together on a daily basis anyway. If each of those congregations would get together and form one local congregation with 90 worshipers and take care of one modern building instead of three decrepit old ones, think what would happen. Just the psychological effect would be powerful. Things that can’t go on, eventually don’t. Separations in the body of Christ that serve the powerful over the mission are most likely one of those things.

I share the hope and faith of the article that the Spirit will guide and protect the church and those who serve. But we also need to be truthful and discerning. What is it time for at your congregation?