How to Shrink a Church
The "strict-church thesis" says that strict religions thrive while lenient religions decline. This has been a favorite among evangelicals since first articulated in Dean Kelly's 1972 Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.
Perhaps the best defense of the thesis has been Santa Clara University's Laurence R. Iannaccone's influential 1994 essay, "Why Strict Churches Are Strong."
Iannaccone argued that "strict churches proclaim an exclusive truth — a closed, comprehensive and eternal doctrine. They demand adherence to a distinctive faith, morality, and lifestyle. They condemn deviants, shun dissenters, and repudiate the outside world." He concluded that doctrinal and behavioral strictness "increases commitment, raises levels of participation, and enables a group to offer more benefits to current and potential members." Consequently, he says these groups "enjoy a competitive advantage over their opposites."
We evangelicals have long chalked up our success to this thesis. People are leaving liberal, mainline churches, we say, because liberals have compromised the gospel, and people are flocking to evangelical churches precisely because we have remained true and firm in the faith.
But a new book — Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, by Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere (NYU) — argues that the strict-church thesis does not hold water. The authors look at five mega-ministries in broader evangelicalism, movements led by Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Brian McClaren, Paula White, and Rick Warren. They examine these ministries through a marketplace approach to American religion, which analyzes spiritual supply and demand, marketing techniques, religious needs, and so forth.
A careful student of evangelicalism knows that only those outside the movement could possible think all these leaders represent the heart of evangelical faith. They would hardly recognize each other as evangelicals! And sifting church research through a narrow grid like market economy distorts as much as it reveals. But, still, it does reveal something.
And that something is this: The strict-church thesis needs revising. As the authors summarize: "We uncover little that is strict or demanding in our subjects' messages or ministries, and yet four of their churches are among the largest in the country." Instead, they argue that their success is due to effective marketing, meeting psychological needs, and appropriately addressing "the cultural tastes of potential clients."
Despite my concerns about its larger argument, this study highlights an all too well-known trend in our movement. Many churches are growing because they preach a God of second and third and fourth chances, and a faith that gives palpable hope, joy, and acceptance. What's not to like? Indeed, there are gracious aspects of the Christian faith. But let's face it, the word strict does not apply. The Jesus who tells followers to sever offending hands, to let the dead bury themselves, to give one's possessions to the poor, to take up the cross — well, he's not easy to find in our churches these days.
The strictest Christian groups, in fact, are the smallest on the planet. Take monasteries or convents, with their high demands of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These theologically conservative and morally strict communities are not winning converts by the tens of thousands. As many people attend weekly services at Joel Osteen's church (about 30,000) as there are Franciscan friars worldwide.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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