Counting to One and the Evangelical Demon of Numbers

Mark Galli was joking on Facebook when he announced his latest article as being written by one of his favourite authors.

The few friends who read this blog regularly know how much I like the articles written by Mark Galli, from Christianity Today, and that I am not joking about it.

His latest text deals with the pathological obsession with numbers shared by most Evangelicals. The argument is simple. Liberal churches are in decline (numerically), while conservative churches are growing (numerically). Who’s better then? The answer is obvious and worryingly self-gratifying. Nevertheless, the latest figures seem to contradict this vulgata of the good Evangelical. Which offers Galli an excellent opportunity for another great article.

I add below a few quotes, as a teaser. I hope most of you would be intrigued and motivated to read the whole text.

Evangelicals love to count, and the higher the numbers the better. After all, the more people we count in our pews, the more people are “coming to know the Lord.” In our better moments we know that is not necessarily true—most church growth is transferred growth, people just changing churches. But in our best moments, higher numbers mean people are coming to know Christ.

We’ve taken church growth statistics to new levels in the last few decades, and have created all sorts of formulas to determine whether we’re growing or not. I recall as a pastor having to figure out how to determine “decadal growth rates” and “conversion rates.” The goal of any card-carrying evangelical leader is to learn to count as high as possible, and there is something invigorating about that. But I wonder if we’d be wiser if we learned also how to count to one.

This started in the early 1970s after Dean Kelley published his Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (HarperCollins). Kelley noted how badly mainline liberal churches were declining and how conservative evangelical churches were growing. Kelley more or less just reported what he saw, and noted the correlation between high-demand churches (which conservative evangelical churches were at the time) and church growth. Conservative evangelicals took pride in the correlation, and many began assuming that the righteousness of orthodox theology was confirmed by the growing numbers.

That has worked for decades, but the last few years have given us pause for thought. The recent RNS story reports that, again, even evangelical churches like the Southern Baptist Convention are now in decline. One conservative church is growing—the Assemblies of God—but it’s nothing to write home about: a mere half a percent.

A couple of churches are doing remarkably well. The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) are up 1.42 percent. And the membership growth sweepstakes winner is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, coming in at an astounding 4.37 percent growth rate. These are certainly high-demand groups (many would call them legalistic), but they are hardly models of Christian orthodoxy as traditionally understood.

(Read HERE the whole article.)

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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