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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 ...

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April 2009

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