The Problem with Progressive Churches

The Problem with Progressive Churches August 7, 2014

Robert Rynder:

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.


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  • newenglandsun

    My family has been starting to lean much more progressivist. I also started going to a Ruthenian-Greek Catholic parish from a more progressivist Evangelical Covenant Church. The problem I see with progressivist churches is that they have a low liturgical composition and their theology is virtually bankrupt.

    This is beginning to happen in the conservative Evangelical Non-Denominational church that I was in prior to going to the Covenantalist Church. There just becomes a lower and lower sense of theology in the non-liturgically conditioned churches which is my problem. There is more effort placed on the individual to maintain his own individual relationship with Jesus and if he falls, they may get prayers, but no one really wants to lift him up, he has to do that himself.

  • Frank6548

    Yes there is a move by many towards creating their own god. One that agrees with the way they want to live. A dead end for sure.

  • Thursday1

    This just brings up the question: why are progressive churches so disproportionately affected by “organizational dysfunction/brokenness and general shifts in cultural attitudes/behaviors”?

  • Andrew Dowling

    For starters, a huge number of mainlines were urban churches serving an urban white population that after the 60s and 70s (civil rights movement and integration) simply were not there anymore.

  • Thursday1

    That doesn’t work. You see the same decline in the mainline in places like Canada.

  • What did this have to do with the article? I’m not trying to be rude. I just am not connecting the dots.

  • Holly

    You’re right. It’s babies. I am UMC, and have been throughout my whole life. (Pastor’s kid, pastor’s wife.) I read with interest a few years ago the forward of Adam Hamilton’s “Seeing Grey in a Black and White World.” (For those who don’t know, Adam H. is one of United Methodism’s most famous pastors.) In this forward, Adam laughingly condescended toward those who said that Methodism’s numerical decline had anything to do with having fewer children. I found that shockingly short-sighted to the truth. It *is* true. Progressives have fewer children.

    The UMC also endorses judicial use of abortion. In order to understand this, you must read not only their social articles on abortion, but on responsible family planning. The UMC legislative branch funds and lobbies toward abortion rights, and toward more free access of contraception. It’s not just a “feeling,” it’s an actual, purposeful, legislative movement.

    One more thing, and I understand that this will sound harsh. I mean for it to reflect truth, however, not to be hurtful. The UMCs which have embraced full-inclusion for same-sex ministers (in relationships) and which have also become “welcoming and inclusive congregations” have pushed away more conservative families (which are often large) in favor of unions with fewer or no children. (And I want to be clear that not all UMCs are inclusive, many are conservative – thus the current battles.) This is not to say that all people should not be loved and valued (but inclusive at all levels means an entirely different thing…) simply that the math adds up to fewer children/fewer members now and in the future.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It’s not the sole reason but it’s definitely a factor; for starters look at the beautiful mainline churches in downtown Detroit . . .the people those churches catered to are long gone.

  • Thanks. I didn’t see that link.

  • Daniel Merriman

    “Curate”. Gag me with a spoon. Let’s be sure our curating doesn’t get in the way of our missional flourishing.

  • gaige

    Hearing a pastor defend abortion from the pulpit is why I left the UMC at the age of 14, never to return.