He misses a factual study by Greeley and Hout: babies. Progressive, mainline church members don’t have as many babies as “evangelical” and “Pentecostal” church members. But he’s got some good points.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard these before: “Progressive churches will never grow because they’re too liberal.” “Conservative churches grow because they embody traditional values and orthodoxy.” “If you take a position on a divisive issue, people may leave, but twice as many new people will show up who agree with that issue.” These are popular phrases thrown around in the ongoing debate over church growth in the United Methodist Church (as well as in other mainline denominations). I’m not that surprised that these and similar arguments still make the rounds amongst our tribe, especially during our current round of the progressive vs. conservative steel cage match. As much as we all moaned and groaned over “Vital Congregations” and the “Call to Action” a few years ago, perhaps this “church growth” argument should have been put to rest when we learned some things from the Towers Watson report that measured characteristics of church vitality, the parts of the engine that must be fully tuned in order to drive church growth. That report was clear that theology and/or particular stances on social issues are not the key factors that drive church growth or decline. What the report did find, however, is that “vitality” is increased through a number of organizational factors such as quality of leadership, preaching, diversity of worship styles, numbers and types of small groups offered, missions giving, etc. However, anyone who’s lead a healthy growing church (progressive or conservative) didn’t need a fancy (and expensive) report to tell them that.
It’s past time that we stop using the “my church is bigger than your church because we take a X stance on X social, political, or theological issue” argument, once and for all.
Progressive congregations that are in decline aren’t in decline because they’re progressive. They’re in decline for the same reason that many conservative congregations are in decline: organizational dysfunction/brokenness and general shifts in cultural attitudes/behaviors (a.k.a. the move towards being a “spiritual but not religious” nation).
There’s also a third and perhaps mostly overlooked reason for decline: the lack of ability to create and curate an interesting and compelling community of faith.