No, the church does not have to change to remain “relevant”

One refrain I get deeply exhausted with is the notion that “churches have to change to remain relevant in the modern world.”

The people who say such things usually want their church to behave more like a political party than a religious institution. (Like Pope Francis, who would prefer a Marxist church to the Roman Catholic Church.) The change they want to see is not theological, but cultural. For example, they want the Catholic Church to embrace abortion or LGTBQ rights or to allow priests to marry. Most probably can’t articulate the theological arguments behind the church’s positions. But even the ones who can don’t care about theology.

What really gets me about this statement though is that it is demonstrably, empirically false. Churches that become more liberal experience rapid declines in attendance (and giving), not increasing attendance and more “relevancy” in their communities. This is the lesson of every denominational schism in recent decades.

Take, for example, the rapid decline in the Evangelical Lutheran Church:

According to projections from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Office of Research and Evaluation, the whole denomination will have fewer than 67,000 members in 2050, with fewer than 16,000 in worship on an average Sunday by 2041.

That’s right: according to current trends, the church will basically cease to exist within the next generation. 

Or the Presbyterian Church USA, which continues to have entire communities leave as the church becomes more liberal:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continued to lose members in 2017, extending a pattern that has persisted since the mid-1960s. At the end of the year, church membership totaled 1,415,053, a decline of 67,714 members from 2016.

At the same time, a five-year period of unprecedented losses neared an end as net membership losses returned to previous levels over the last 50-plus years. The larger losses between 2012 and 2016 were brought on by the dismissal of about 100 churches (and their members) each year to splinter denominations after the 2010 General Assembly voted to allow the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as church officers and the 2014 Assembly voted to allow same-gender marriage.

“It is clear our unusually large losses between 2012 and 2016 are directly related to churches dismissed to other bodies,” says Kris Valerius, manager of records and statistics for the Office of the General Assembly.

From 21 churches and 4,718 members dismissed in 2011, the number jumped to 110 churches and 33,659 members dismissed in 2012. That pattern continued until 2017, when the number of dismissed churches fell to 45 and the number of members dismissed dipped to 6,910. The PC(USA) currently has 9,304 congregations, 147 fewer than at the end of 2016.

You can go all the way down the line with liberal denominations and liberal seminaries. They are not more “relevant,” they are headed for extinction as a matter of fact, not opinion.

The Catholic Church has seen dramatic declines in attendance and giving in the era of Pope Francis, and it’s not because Pope Francis is too conservative for people’s tastes. It’s because people WANT tradition and history. You know what has been growing in the Catholic Church? Attendance at traditional Latin Mass.

This is not rocket science. As people move closer to postmodern worldviews and moral relativism, they see less reason to practice a religion. The first generation post-schism starts going to church less. The second generation becomes a religious “none.”

Another reason for that trend is that the schism rarely stops with one issue. The church splits over gay rights, for example, but ends up talking about environmental sin. So the folks who started off just wishing that the church would not be cruel to gay people wonder how the church became so far gone. Meanwhile, in the conservative churches, things continue exactly as they did before and no one is having an existential crisis. Their kids are more likely to marry in the church (or marry at all) and have kids baptized in the church (or have kids at all).

You have watched this happen in the Democrat Party in the United States at-large too. White Baby Boomer liberals led the charge to change religious institutions toward less traditional positions and practices. Their millennial kids are not religious at all.

You either commit to a tradition or you don’t. You either subscribe to religious discipline or you don’t.

There is not some magical middle ground where you can simultaneously believe in a wisdom tradition and have a postmodern understanding of truth.

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