Success and Truth in Religion - Sightings (Martin Marty)

For much of my adult life, all of which has been spent in some form connected to religious work or study, I've heard the mantra that conservative churches grow because they hold fast to the truth. The reverse of this suggests that liberal churches have declined because of their failure to hold fast to truth. Now that conservative churches are struggling, maybe we're learning a different lesson. Maybe it was truth lead to success, but as Martin Marty suggests it's simply success breeds success. I think he's probably correct. That doesn't mean that we give up on pursuing what is good and right, it's just that there might not be a direct link to success -- just ask Job! In any case, I invite you to take a read and offer your thoughts on truth and success in the religious world.

Success and Truth in Religion   
By MARTIN E. MARTY   August 15, 2016
Since 1972, when Dean Kelley published Why Conservative Churches Are Growinga good portion of the noticing of religious trends has been framed in Kelley’s terms. This led to concentration on what his title could take for granted: that Conservative Churches were growing. Kelley’s case and much else that fit his frame could have been supplied in an implied subtitle: Why Liberal Churches Are Declining. Readers who have a spare afternoon to play not Pok√©mon but Google can find hundreds, if not thousands, of entries on these subjects, whether explicitly defined by Kelley in 1972, or in our times by Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), or the Pew Research Center. We check the proposals and findings of these weekly, and often find them revealing.

What’s new? There is little point in retracing what contributed to the liberal churches’ problems. That is all very familiar. But recently we’ve been noticing how the issue has changed now that conservative churches are not growing, at least not consistently and markedly, or, as their own prophets point out vigorously: many of these today seem to be declining numerically, along with so much else among religious and community-serving agencies.

Previously we were instructed by Chuck Warnock’s review of veteran sociologist Mark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Warnock chose to call his analysis “The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” Yale Divinity School (but avowedly “secular-minded”) communications staffer Tom Krattenmaker zeroed in on “Why a Stout Theological Creed Is Not Saving Evangelical Churches.” He noticed this already during last year’s “fractious summer,” and he’d have more documentation this calendar round.

Sightings’ appended “Resources” this week provide access to some of the reasoning about these cited “non-growing” and “not being saved” articles. (By the way, neither they nor Jones nor others in their company suggest that those in or friendly to liberal-or-moderate churches should indulge in Schadenfreude because someone else is also ailing.) Krattenmaker points to the decline in numbers of the once-braggadocious but now self-examining conservative flagship, the Southern Baptist Convention, and chides some Conservative Church spokespersons who still play the blame-game against liberals.

Warnock spelled out several reasons for the setbacks to Conservative Churches’ growth. His sources and others join liberal critics of old who noticed that the attempt by the readers of 1972 and since to counsel all churches to turn doctrinally conservative in order to grow was often based on the assumption that conservative churches grew because they held to the truth. We might now once again need to observe that “success does not certify truth” in church life. “Success certifies success,” and prosperity depends on innumerable social, cultural, and organizational factors. Serious people in all kinds of churches and religious institutions often make clear that, in the terms of New Testament language, those who are “stewards” are to be measured not by whether they are successful but by whether they were faithful. Evangelicals and liberals both know that. There’s a lot of faithfulness evident in these “fractious” and hard times for churches and other religious groups, and that often gets overlooked by the success-measurers.

We’ll let Krattenmaker conclude: “As for evangelicals themselves, it’s time to stop touting the attraction and retention of their stout theology. If they need evidence for the beauty and truth of their doctrine, church membership numbers are no longer the place to look. They never were.”

Chaves, Marc. American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Kelley, Dean M., Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of ReligionMercer University Press, 1996 (originally published by Harper & Row in 1972).

Krattenmaker, Tom. "Why a stout theological creed is not saving evangelical churches."Religion News Service.  August 10, 2016.

Mohler, Albert. "Why conservative churches are growing: David Brooks and the Llmits of dociology." Albert Mohler website. April 25, 2011.

Warnock, Chuck."The myth of why conservative churches are growing." Chuck Warnock website. October 17, 2011. 
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
Forward to Friend
Sightings Home Page | Submission Guidelines | Reprint Policy
Divinity School
Email us
ALSO from The Martin Marty Center:
Copyright © 2016 UChicago Divinity School, All rights reserved.


Popular Posts