Why Both Conservative and Liberal Churches are Decreasing

Rachel Held Evans

Author and speaker Rachel Held Evans has become an important voice for the many post-evangelical millennials in the US who long for a church with more Jesus and less Republican prejudice. In an interview a few years ago, Evans names progressive values along with sacramental church life as being the reason she joined the Episcopalian church. She was asked to comment the fact that Episcopalianism is rapidly losing church attendees, to which she responds:

Just about every denomination in the American church — including many evangelical denominations — is seeing a decline in numbers, so if it’s a competition, then we’re all losing, just at different rates… Lately I’ve been wondering if a little death and resurrection is exactly what the American church needs… A church might produce thousands of attendees without producing any disciples.

This is quite remarkable, since the point of one of Evans’ most famous articles on CNN’s Belief Blog is that evangelical churches must become more liberal to stop millenials from leaving them. This is a similar argument to John Shelby Spong‘s famous thesis that Christianity must change or die. A former bishop in Evans’ new church, Spong argued that this change includes stop believing in theism, stop beliving in the supernatural, stop believing that prayer is useful and stop believing in physical resurrection. Pretty ridiculous. Evans is far from this extreme, but her reasoning in the CNN article was similar: liberal Christianity is necessary for church growth.

Evans’ reasoning has always perplexed me. I am a millennial Christian and I have no interest in embracing liberal theology. I’m also aware of that liberal churches like the Episcopalian church in the US or the Lutheran church here in Sweden, are declining like crazy. To present liberal theology as the answer to evangelical decline is both non-biblical and non-empirical.

Since the day I was saved I’ve based my faith in Jesus on the New Testament. There I read that Christ is the only way to God, that He was born of a virgin, that He performed miracles, that He assigned His disciples to heal the sick in His Name, to preach the Gospel always, to love their enemies, to eradicate poverty and to embrace holiness, teaching that life is sacred, that one shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage, that personal wealth is wrong and that God’s people shouldn’t adapt to the standards of this world but be renewed by the Holy Spirit.

Now, this crosses the traditional lines between left and right. Evans criticizes how evangelicals support war, economic inequality and a judging mentality, and rightly so. A conservative Christian like Chelsen Vicari criticizes how progressive Christians downplay doctrine and opens up for heresy, doubts the miraculous and decreases incentives for evangelism, and rightly so. Is it just me who thinks that Biblical Christianity rejects the bad stuff in both of these camps while preserving the good?

Christianity is growing massively in the majority world (Africa, Asia and Latin America), especially Pentecostal and charismatic churches. Liberal theology is largely a Western middle-class phenomena and it has absolutely nothing to do with church growth. Yet, even many Pentecostal and charismatic churches are decreasing in the US – as Evans says, all denominations are losing at different rates. How come?

Well, church growth is not just dependent on what doctrine you have but also on whether you evangelize or not. In the Majority World, evangelism is very common both as organized church events as well as spontanious actions in the daily life of Christians. In the West, it is very uncommon that the whole church leaves (or sells) the building to go out and share the Gospel together, and this builds a culture where Western Christians do not evangelize as often as Christians in the Majority World. Or the Bible.

I think all churches should go back to the Biblical Jerusalem church structure where everyone participated in daily evangelism. This of course presupposes that the church believes in the Gospel and that evangelism is necessary. For the evangelism to be effective, it should be confirmed by miracles (Acts 14:3) as well as expressed in both words and deeds (Rom 15:18-19). Thus, charismatic activism combined with daily evangelism is a Biblical recipy that Western churches really should try out.

This means that Conservatives should be more passionate about peace and justice, liberals should be more passionate about miracles and the Gospel, and everyone should be more passionate about daily evangelism. Yet, Evans words about making disciples rather than attendees should be remembered – church growth isn’t necessarily a sign of Biblical Christianity, as the Mormon movement tells us for example. Still, if a church leads no one to Christ, they’re doing something wrong. And it could be as simple as the fact that they aren’t telling strangers about Him.

foto-magnus-aronson-9158Micael Grenholm is editor for PCPJ. Having studied theology as well as peace and development studies in Uppsala, Sweden, Micael Grenholm’s passion is to combine charismatic spirituality with activism for peace and justice. Apart from editing pcpj.org he vlogs for the YouTube channel Holy Spirit Activism and is active with evangelism and apologetics both locally and online.

6 thoughts on “Why Both Conservative and Liberal Churches are Decreasing”

  1. It is time we look at the Bible and espouse those teachings, as seen in the 1st century church. As one who grew up in the 60s, a famous moto was question authority. There is something to be said for simply not accepting the status quo and searching the scriptures. Seek the truth and the truth will set you free.


  2. Michael, this is good. How do you envision conservatives or liberal churches Adopting pactices in which they don’t believe? Might there be opportunities for missionaries to the churches themselves?


    1. Thank you, Thomas! I think it’s easier for conservative churches to adapt biblical practices than liberal. All you need to do is to show that the biblical practices you want them to adapt are biblical. Liberal churches, however, tend to care more about what the surrounding culture thinks – and that of course will take even longer time to change.

      The way these traditions have adapted charismatic theology shows this, I think. Many if not most evangelical churches have now embraced the gifts of the Spirit, since they realised that they are biblical, whereas most liberal churches haven’t.


  3. Just a point of order: conservative and plain Anabaptists are not declining; the latest sociological research puts our doubling time at 19 years. (See JAPAS Vol. 3 Issue 1)

    Evangelism and missions are strong too.


    1. Thank you for the clarification, Josh! Of course, the decline of conservative churches in the West is a broad generalisation that does not apply to all denominations. Still, I wonder if it really is due to evangelism and mission that Anabaptism grows and not due to child birth? I’ve heard that the Amish has a rapid growth because they tend to bear many children.



  4. I am part of a congregation of a Pentecostal church in a predominantly liberal blue state, and while many of the sermons are very moving and eloquent, one thing I have learned recently is that there is a growing divide between the younger and older generation. Like, most parents here are still relatively Republican, but many of their children are staunchly pro-Democrat. Which is not necessarily wrong in itself, but one wonders how they usually try to reconcile their beliefs.

    My impression from speaking carefully with many people in my age group is that they think as long as they read the Bible and believe that Jesus is God, anything they do outside of the church is essentially permissible. There are some college-aged people who strike me as very much the casual partying and drinking kind, listening to rap music frequently as well as talking almost like some gangsters do, and a youth leader who has both piercings and tattoos. Some people I’ve met at this program don’t even go to church on weekends. And while politics is not talked about frequently, many also seem to be very strongly against the current administration.

    Of course, many Christians in such an age group are still young and impressionable, and change in every society is inevitable; maybe as they grow older, they will shift their perspectives. But if you call yourself a Christian, you should be striving to hold yourself to higher standards than most other people that you know, not because you “feel” it’s kind of okay to do this or that because everyone apparently does it these days.

    I’m almost scared to talk to them about issues like abortion, drugs, gay marriage and Israel, because deep down inside, I think I know very well what many of these other young “Christians” lean towards — so much so that I have begun considering possibly moving to another church. Yes, I know even many religious millennials are “go-with-the-flow” nowadays, and this is not exactly shocking. But surely there are some values which are beyond compromise?

    So the bottom line is this — are most young Protestant Christians in the USA predominantly conservative or liberal, and are the figures changing?


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