The appeal of churches who know what they believe...

The growth of theologically conservative churches and the corresponding decline of liberal churches has been the occasion of a lot of speculation over the years. Even sociologists have offered opinions. The findings usually suggest that people can't deal with the thoughtful subtleties and ambiguities of liberal churches. Therefore they flock to the so-called easy answers provided by conservative churches. It is reasoned that people feel "safe" with more rules so they prefer conservative churches. However, this assumes that conservative churches are more legalistic than liberal churches. But this is not at all the case. Liberal churches have the same capacity for legalism as their fundamentalist counterparts. The rules are simply different.

I would argue that liberal churches have a far greater capacity for legalism than conservative churches (I am using the term "conservative" to refer to those churches which adhere to biblical orthodoxy). One of the defining characteristics of the liberal church is the casting aside of the doctrine of the atonement. The cross is reduced to a mere demonstration of love by God; a demonstration that we must now seek to emulate. Hence, more rules. Indeed, the battle cry of the liberal church is "deeds not creeds." "It is not about what we believe," the liberals say. "It is about what we do." It is no surprise then, that the rules for behavior, belief, thought, and words is as intense in the average liberal church as anything you will find in any fundamentalist congregation.

As far as the charge that liberal churches embrace ambiguity and mystery while conservative churches opt for easy answers, I say: nonsense! Have you ever heard a liberal preacher expound on the Canaanite slaughter from Exodus? No ambiguity at all. It simply did not happen as the Bible describes. "God had nothing to do with it," we are told by the liberal preacher. Now let's move on. But for the preacher (and the church) committed to the reliability of the biblical record it is not so easy. The testimony of Scripture cannot be dismissed as erroneous. The faithful conservative preacher deals soberly with such texts, understanding that there is a certain amount of mystery involved. Careful meditation and a humble epistemology are required of the conservative church if they are to faithfully navigate highly challenging texts of Scripture. For the liberal, no such careful navigation is required. If a text is not "intellectually satisfying" (a phrase a liberal O.T. scholar used when telling me why he did not believe the creation account, the flood, the exodus, the miracles of Jesus, etc) it simply dismissed. That is far easier than having to carefully study and interpret challenging texts from a position of belief.

Al Mohler has posted an interesting article on the "success" of conservative churches as compared to the decline of liberal churches. He interacts with a now decades old book on the subject by Dean Kelley and a recent article by David Brooks which appeared in The New York Times.

Dr. Mohler points out that while sociology can observe the appeal of ardor and clarity, it cannot grasp the power of truth. This is a reality that is spiritually discerned.

A sociological analysis can distinguish between stronger and weaker forms of faith and belief and can measure qualities such as rigor, ardor, and definiteness. Sociology can trace developments and offer research-based predictions about the future.

What sociology cannot do is deal with the most important question of all — the truth question. That is where Mormons and evangelical Christians part company. Orthodox Jews, Jesuits, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all fall on the “strong” side of the sociological divide in their own way, but each has a completely distinct worldview based upon very different understandings of the truth. Mormons and Methodists have very different theologies, to say the least, but it takes a theologically informed Mormon and Methodist to know the difference.

Dean M. Kelley and David Brooks, each writing for a very different audience, have much to say to evangelical Christians. But, in the end, sociology can get us only so far and no further. The rigor, ardor, and energies of evangelical churches must not be held merely in a desire to hold to a form of religion that will grow, but in a biblical commitment to hold fast to the truth of the Gospel and to share that saving truth with the whole world.

We are left with what David Brooks described as the “blunt theological talk of the church ladies” in that African village — “right and wrong, salvation and damnation.” Such is the Kingdom.
Read the entire article HERE.