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How to Shrink a Church

It's not that easy, but hopefully it's the new evangelical trend.

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.

Or take the movement called "the new monasticism." As reported in Christianity Today, in the last decade or so, some two dozen communities have been founded in inner cities across America. Young men and women, some single, some married, live in some of the poorest neighborhoods, together practicing the traditional spiritual disciplines while ministering to prostitutes, drug addicts, single mothers, and the homeless. You only see dozens following this path, not thousands.

This suggests that the more religiously strict a group is, the smaller it will be. This brings to mind those sayings about the narrow road and the few who are called.

As a former minister, I know how often a pastor has to weigh what needs to be said with what can be received. In a culture saturated with the therapeutic, fewer and fewer attenders can hear something challenging without "feeling unloved" or "having issues" with the church. Raising demands is a pretty good way to empty the pews. And pews need to be full if we're going to pay rent and salaries and sustain a church's ministries, all of which are quite worthy of funding.

This is the dilemma we evangelicals find ourselves in at the beginning of the 21st century — how to present the gospel in an emotionally and spiritually shallow culture. It is a commonplace that in this effort evangelicals have succumbed to the culture. So it may be time to move the conversation forward and suggest a practical solution: church shrink conferences. I'm not kidding.

Many pastors and lay leaders recognize that they are in a superficially successful church, and that it's time to introduce the harder edges of the gospel. But how? How do we get comfortable people to listen to a gospel that includes a lot of discomfort? How do you deepen discipleship without introducing despair? How do you insist firmly on faithfulness without becoming legalistic?

Most important, how do you manage the loss in membership? That will happen. The more strictly you adhere to the teachings of Jesus, the smaller the church will "grow." One of the most crucial skills of a military commander is, in the face of defeat, to lead a retreat that doesn't turn into panic or a massacre. And one of the most crucial skills for pastors and church lay leaders is to manage church decline when people are leaving because they see, finally, what Jesus is asking of them. This is not a job for the faint of heart, and will require great wisdom to manage resources, personnel, and morale in such a time.

Evangelicals have become the unmatched experts in church growth, but often end up with a truncated gospel. If we are to live into the full counsel of God in the years to come, I believe we'll need a few experts in church shrink.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. Some of this column was adapted from his book Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).

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