Connor Wood–Why IS liberal Protestantism dying, anyway?

In the early 1990s, a political economist named Laurence Iannaccone claimed that seemingly arbitrary demands and restrictions, like going without electricity (the Amish) or abstaining from caffeine (Mormons), can actually make a group stronger. He was trying to explain religious affiliation from a rational-choice perspective: in a marketplace of religious options, why would some people choose religions that make serious demands on their members, when more easygoing, low-investment churches were ”“ literally ”“ right around the corner? Weren’t the warmer and fuzzier churches destined to win out in fair, free-market competition?

According to Iannaccone, no. He claimed that churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.

And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements. Members receive more valuable benefits, in the form of social support and community, than members of other communities, because the social fabric is composed of people who have demonstrated that they’re totally committed to being there. This muscular social fabric, in turn, attracts more members, who are drawn to the benefits of a strong community ”“ leading to growth for groups with strict membership requirements.

Read it all.


Posted in * Culture-Watch, Religion & Culture, Sociology

2 comments on “Connor Wood–Why IS liberal Protestantism dying, anyway?

  1. QohelethDC says:

    Fascinating read; many thanks!

  2. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Yes, thanks, Kendall, for posting this. Actually, I thought the photo that accompanied the piece really said it all: with one, white-haired old guy in the pews.

    Because the most obvious reason why the liberal Protestant denoms are withering away and declining so badly is because they are graying so relentlessly. The historic oldline denoms are truly getting old. TEC now is in such sorry straits that the national mean age of the laity is a whopping and disastrous 61. Yep, that’s right, the national average age is like the old guy in the picture. And that national average age has been rising inexorably for a long time (basically for 40 years+).

    One of the most devastating stats I know about TEC is that on average less than 10% of the youth confirmed stick around and become active adult members of TEC. TEC is absolutely terrible at holding onto its own young, and it’s even worse at evangelism. No wonder TEC is dying.

    And yes, that has everything to do with Connor Wood’s thesis that the Achilles Heel of the liberal churches is their lax and lenient approach to doctrine and church life in general. I’m totally convinced that is true. But although Wood cites other researchers, he could have pointed to the man who pioneered that thesis, Dean Kelley, a Methodist minister who wrote a blockbuster book in 1973 called [b]Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.[/b] When he came out with an updated second edition in the mid 1980’s, Kelley admitted in the preface that he wished he could revise his title. In light of the fact that not all conservative churches grow and not all liberal ones decline, he stressed that the real factor that separated the growing churches from the declining ones was how strict and demanding they were. Hence, he wished he could retitle his book, [b]Why Strict Churches Are Strong.[/b]

    Or as another wise and discerning analyst put it, the evangelical American church historian George Marsden, brand name loyalty has disappeared in modern America, with religion like everything else. And he used this devastating analogy. Marsden said that picking a church these days was like picking what brand of gasoline to put in your car. People have learned that it doesn’t matter who pedals the gas you buy. All that matters is price, convenience, and choice of octane levels. But he saved the best for last by adding this stinging indictment at the end, for Marsden ascerbically added, “And the ‘mainline’ denominations no longer sell high octane religion.”

    Yeah, that nails it. High performance, high octane, high voltage religion is also high demand religion. In a religious free market like we have today, in the end, all congregations and denominations tend to get the kind of adherents that they really want through the expectations they project. You very seldom get more commitment than you ask for or demand. And in the final analysis, why should people take a church seriously, if it demands little of them?? Maybe in the halcyon days of the 1950’s when there was a general cultural expectation that decent, upstanding citizens would go to church, people with little faith or zeal would still seek out a church to affiliate with for social or other reasons. But in our increasingly secular, pluralistic, and even hostile social environment, where committed Christians are suspect for being intolerant, ignorant, or standing in the way of social progress, why in the world would most people want to affiliate with a church that offered them little, and demanded even less?

    David Handy+