In our culture there’s not much demand for a God whose interests are for the poor and needy, or who sends rain on the just and the unjust. It’s hard to market a God who calls for sacrificial service and for loving our neighbor and our enemy.
Liberal mainline Protestants, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />UnitedMethodistChurch and the UnitedChurches of Christ, all reported declining memberships. This decline among so-called mainline churches continues a trend that has been going on now for several decades.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Champions of conservative theology point to reports like this and make the case that churches faithful to the Gospel will grow. Conservative evangelicals believe there is a direct link between the growth of their churches and the truth of their message. Conservative churches are growing, we are told, because God is blessing their commitment to God’s word.
The other side of this, obviously, is that churches in decline are failing because of their unfaithfulness to the Gospel. Because mainline churches focus more on social justice issues and tend to be more liberal in their politics, they are clearly not following the true Gospel. Evidence of their theological waywardness can be found in their declining numbers. At least that’s how the argument goes.
There is one big problem in trying to make the case about a connection between growth and truth. The same study that revealed the disparity between conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches also pointed out that Mormonism was the fastest growing faith in America, with Islam not far behind.
Of course, conservative evangelicals take care of this problem with a bit of intellectual sleight of hand. While growth in their own churches serves as proof of God’s blessing, growth among Mormons and Muslims exemplifies how easily people can be fooled into following a false religion. Talk about a knife that cuts both ways!
Another take on all this is found in Harold Bloom’s important book The American Religion. Bloom argues that the sustained growth of certain faith groups in America, notably Southern Baptists and Mormons, is not the result of any theological superiority. On the contrary, faith groups like these grow because they are able to articulate a vision of God that strikes a familiar chord in the American soul.
Bloom believes that many religious seekers in America long for a God who will take care of them. These seekers are looking for a God interested in enriching and advancing the American way of life. Faith groups tapping into these longings will reach the masses and experience continued growth and influence. Faith groups such as Southern Baptists and Mormons are successfully promoting a vision of God that is uniquely American.
In other words, in our culture there’s not much demand for a God whose interests are for the poor and needy, or who sends rain on the just and the unjust. It’s hard to market a God who calls for sacrificial service and for loving our neighbor and our enemy. A God like this simply doesn’t garner the big crowds.
I wonder if this is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.