Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review: Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

Title: Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

Author: Dean Kelley

Publisher: Harper & Row

Date: 1972

ISBN: 978-0865542242

Length: 184 pages including 5-page index

Quote: “It is generally assumed that religious enterprises, if they want to succeed, will be reasonable, rational, courteous, responsible, restrained, and receptive to outside criticism...to preserve a good image in the world (as the world defines all these terms)...that they will be democratic and gentle in their internal affairs...They will also be responsive to the needs of men (as currently conceived), and will want to work cooperatively with other groups to meet those needs. They will not let dogmatism, judgmental moralism, or obsessions with cultic purity stand in the way of such cooperation...These expectations are a recipe for the failure of the religious enterprise.”

Before Dean Kelley's time, Dorothy Sayers said what Kelley has to say in more poetic terms: the Lion of Judah is not, has never been, will never be, a pet cat. That's all Why Conservative Churches Are Growing has to say to poetic and religious people. However, everyone can't be poetic or religious, and some people needed to see it spelled out at length, in sociological language, with graphs. So that's what Dean Kelley did.

Nice, bland churches that offer nice, bland, low-content “services” that basically soften people up for the fundraising pitch for the schemes toward which “social planners” want to direct religious fervor, Kelley demonstrates, don't generate much fervor. Once people notice that all these churches aim to do is get them to feel good about themselves, well, most of us either work during the week or are living with painful disabilities, and either way most of us will feel even better about ourselves if we use the time churchgoing takes up to make up for any sleep we lost during the week. The success of such churches' outreach to the young depends on the social relationships among the first half-dozen young people who attend them. If a really pretty and popular girl, or a rock star's little brother, happens to belong to the church a “youth ministry” will attract a few dozen other teenagers. If not, well...not.

On the other hand lower-status, reform-oriented churches that offer working-class, even student and welfare-class, believers more hope of recognition for making virtuous personal choices, that demand that believers adopt strict standards for morality and even for “ritual purity,” that don't cooperate easily with “social planners,” that preach specific beliefs about God being altogether different from “Humanity” as represented by the “social planners,” do generate fervor and commitment. Not only did the rebellious youth of the 1960s drop out of bland, nice churches to become hippies or Marxists; they also dropped out to join strict, conservative churches or movements of all kinds—Protestant churches including the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Worldwide Church of God, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Salvation Army, and other groups including the Mormons, Black Muslims, Christian Scientists, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witnesses, Zen Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, Neo-Pagans, and Unification Church.

What these “conservative churches” had in common was that they did not fit in with the “social planners'” plans for the role of churches in the socialistic, Humanistic world the “planners” hoped to build. Although the rules for members in each group were different, each group did preach (and to some extent require) strict observance of the rules. At this period the Black Muslims had minimal contact with traditional Muslims and preached a radically different—humanistic and Afrocentric—set of beliefs, defining the concept of God in terms that could be described as not even theistic, yet they too required members to obey rules that set them apart from the unbelieving mainstream. The difference between S.D.A. and W.C.O.G. beliefs, I remember firsthand, is historical: the two groups formed independently, in different times and places, as a result of different people reading the Bible and reaching almost identical understandings of what it teaches.

Among some of the other churches, and between “conservative” Protestant churches and non-Protestant sects, differences in beliefs and cultures could be vast. Some groups were antisemitic; some were passionately pro-Israel. Many preached an improbable ideal of spiritual chastity; at least one group encouraged young people to sleep around, like hippies, in order to recruit converts. Some took New Age beliefs like astrology, telepathy, channelling, divination, spirit guides, ancestor spirits, and/or ancestral “gods” very seriously; others preached that such beliefs were “of the Devil.” Whatever the rules were, however, status within these groups depended to some extent on adherence to the rules, sometimes more than on wealth or professional prestige...and rebellious youths, none of whom had professional prestige, most of whom didn't have wealth and the rest of whom were embarrassed by their elders' wealth, liked being rewarded for personal virtue rather than inherited wealth.

Kelley argues that strict rules of religious practice offer people a sense of “meaning,” whether true or false; that this “meaning” is something people need, and apparently don't get in churches that only ask people to feel good about themselves and write large cheques frequently.

Considering developments since the time of this book's publications, readers might wish to consider the possible relationship between the extent to which people look for “meaning” in religious disciplines that go above and beyond what the majority of people seem to accept as their religious duty, and the ages and other obligations of the people involved. Catholic Christians have managed to incorporate that search for extra “meaning” through religious discipline, within the church, in the monastic tradition; Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches have placed a few “oblates” in Catholic monasteries, but the churches that were formerly considered “low,” minority, fanatical, heretical, and/or working-class have had a better record of making use of the energy young people, and a few widows and retirees, almost literally “have to burn.” The churches Kelley calls “mainstream” tend to be embarrassed by so much energy, to wonder whether young people who want to work for the church sixteen hours a day are likely to start talking out loud to angels next. The revivalist and evangelical churches tend to put those adolescent and midlife hormone surges to work.

Although the “Peace Church” subgroup (Mennonites, Quakers, Amish, Hutterites, Brethren, etc.) were not “growing” rapidly in the early 1970s, Kelley cites the history of this movement as an example of how strict, even fanatical churches win commitment by offering “meaning.” Most members of Peace Churches would prefer today to be known as gentle, easygoing neighbors, but during their periods of rapid growth these groups demanded that people give up bright-colored clothes. The original Methodist church was likewise an intense, evangelical, “fanatical” group—among other things John Wesley encouraged the breakdown of social barriers between socioeconomic classes. Wesley preached to unwashed miners right outside coal mines; his spiritual disciples evangelized American slaves. Then there were the Mormons, who, like traditional Muslims, demanded a lifelong commitment. In the 1970s new Mormons still put on special undergarments marked with the sites of the vital organs at which the “Destroying Angels” were to aim if the wearer ever betrayed the church to its enemies...and the Mormon church was “growing.”

Kelley proposes that, because religious groups that seem very “reasonable” and tolerant and broad-minded, and support good civic and social activity, are competing with political and community groups for the attention of people who are interested in the civic or social activities in question, they will inevitably tend to become weaker groups. Because religious groups that require members to uphold specific beliefs about unprovable matters of faith, teach that outsiders are at best tragically mistaken, have no room for dissent, and demand that members do specific things, have a strong appeal to their narrow niche “markets,” they will tend to be stronger groups as long as their social niches last. “[T]he higher the demand a movement makes on its followers, the fewer there will be who respond to it, but the greater the individual and aggregate impact of those who do respond.”

In the 1970s rich Americans found no “meaning” in church rules that banned makeup, jewelry, dancing, theatre-going, and playing card games that might or might not include Uno. Then again, many Americans were young and poor enough to find quite a lot of “meaning” in rules that basically rewarded them for being frugal. Most of these people had no real alternative to being frugal, but in the “mainstream” churches they were embarrassed by it, while in the “conservative” churches they were rewarded for it. By the 1980s it had become a bit of an embarrassment to Southern Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists that these groups might have been rewarding mere poverty for happening to look like spiritual fervor...but on Kelley's thesis it was a mistake for these churches to abandon their historic encouragement of frugality.

How coincidental is it that after the Anglo-American Adventist churches adopted a policy of never encouraging anyone who still chose to practice the historic disciplines of frugality, those churches went into a decline? Meanwhile Latino-American Adventist churches, against a background where relatively low incomes and little temptation to waste money are “mainstream,” but just being a Protestant still amounts to a substantial commitment to be “different from the mainstream,” are growing fast.

Kelley's data may be forty years old, but his observations remain cogent. Groups that demand commitment get committed members, just as women who hold out for commitments get committed husbands. Groups that try not to exclude anybody fail consistently to attract much of anybody, just as women who never turn down any offer tend after a year or two to become the foremost local experts on Friday and Saturday night television programs. Libraries would do well to keep a copy of this dull little book; church historians and active members of churches would do well to study what Kelley had to say.

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