While many of the specific reasons for an individual church’s or denomination’s decline are complicated, there are two over-arching reasons for extended drops in membership and attendance – the lack of orthodoxy (right beliefs) or orthopraxy (right actions).
To ignore one or the other will undoubtably lead to decline, regardless of how well we think we have the other handled. That is of particular importance because of the way both sides have treated the issue of homosexuality.
Why orthodoxy’s important
When it comes to sexual ethics, conservative Christians are told that we are on the wrong side of history. Our failure to embrace same-sex marriage will lead to our inevitable decline. Millennials are leaving our ranks to never return because we refuse to change the way we understand marriage and sexuality.
On the surface, there seems to be truth to that. Christianity as a whole is shrinking in the U.S. One-third of millennials said their leaving the faith in which they grew up was partly due to their church’s attitude toward homosexuality.
So that settles it, right? Our churches would be full of people, including millennials, if only we would embrace modern tolerance and no longer refer to sex outside of a one man, one woman marriage as sinful.
But that begs a rather large question. Why then are the denominations that have followed this advice in the middle of even larger declines?
Now, obviously the demographics at question are complicated with numerous factors at play – retention rate, evangelism, birth rate, etc. But if the disgruntled millennials (white millennials to be specific) were longing to stay in a church, but found themselves unable to do so merely because of the church’s position on LGBT issues, would they not be running out the backdoor of the evangelical church and through the front door of the local mainline congregation?
Philip Jenkins, looking at the numbers of his own denomination, Episcopal Church USA, came to the conclusion that the last Episcopalian in America is alive today. Within a generation, the ECUSA will have vanished. It is a denomination in a complete demographic free fall.
But they are not alone. The major mainline (and liberal) denominations are all in decline. And their ranks are not being buffeted by an influx of disenchanted evangelicals looking for a place to worship Jesus that shares their viewpoint on gay marriage. (As an aside, new research indicates that college-aged evangelicals may hold more traditional views of marriage than older millennials.)
Rod Dreher has an excellent piece discussing Jenkins’ observations and then examining them in light of the theological shifts of denominations like the ECUSA. Today, mainline liberal denominations are becoming smaller, grayer, and whiter. Hardly anyone is showing up and the ones who do are old and white in a nation that is growing younger and more diverse.
There is no growth or life in casting off traditional biblical teachings on topics because the tide of culture has changed directions. At that point, you have merely unmoored your boat to allow it to drift wherever the current would lead, but you will always and only drift away from those who need the gospel and out into a sea of constant change.
We need the firm foundation of Scripture to tie us to Christ – His person, His teaching, His mission. But this is a foundation we build upon, not merely leave bare, which is where we move to the next point.
Why orthopraxy’s important
Denominations that have maintained traditional biblical teaching on sexual ethics have not been in the precipitous decline of the more liberal ones, but the situation has not been exactly stellar for them either.
When the Southern Baptist Convention reversed its drift toward liberalism, many assumed that people would come flocking back to churches merely because of a change in theology. Clearly that has not been the case, as the denomination is in the midst of a seven-year decline – not the type of drops seen by mainline groups, but a steady decline nonetheless.
Individuals, particularly young individuals, are leaving all churches, including conservative ones. The overall drop-out rate of teenagers is around 70%. Almost two-thirds of those who leave return as they grow older and start families of their own, but more than one-third leave and may never come to church again.
Couple those de-churched individuals with the growing number of totally unchurched Americans and it becomes obvious that churches cannot merely proclaim truth from a pulpit and expect those walking down the street to be changed.
We must be on mission in our communities and around our world. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment must be precious to us. We must go and we must love. Conservative churches must recognize that their orthodox beliefs about Scripture must be demonstrated in orthopraxic lives ruled by Scripture.
This is especially true when it comes to marriage. Those who criticize conservative churches for our position on marriage right observe that we all too frequently fail to value marriage in our own lives. When we treat marriage so carelessly personally, how can we expect others to recognize and accept our supposed support for it institutionally?
Not only should we treat marriage as precious, we should recognize and love those with whom we disagree. We dishonor and disobey Scripture when we treat any individual as anything less than created in the image of God.
Those who identify as LGBT or who support same-sex marriage are not our enemies. They are our neighbors and we are to love them as such.
In addition to our support for the doctrines of the Bible, we must live lives governed by the Bible. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy must come together if we truly want to see growth take place in our churches.
Combining right doctrine and right living
The good news is that millennials who have two committed evangelical parents are most likely (74%) going to become a committed evangelical themselves. Those students who have been discipled themselves remain in the church and grow into committed disciples themselves. In fact, Focus on the Family found that only 11% of young adults who eventually left the church said they had a strong faith as a child.
When it comes to preventing denominational declines, we should look to maintain a commitment to biblical fidelity, but do so in a culturally faithful manner. We can and should remain faithful to what Scripture teaches, which includes sexual ethics and human relationships. It’s holding biblical position strongly, but loving everyone unquestionably.
Droves of millennials aren’t leaving (or attending) churches because of their position on gay marriage. They will leave, they do leave and they have left because we have not been faithful to Scripture with our doctrines and our lives.