Truth Value of Numbers

Christianity Today reports in an article titled Too Inclusive that Pastor Carlton Pearson’s Higher Dimensions Worship Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma has now begun meeting in a neighboring Episcopal church, since membership has dropped by 90% from an initial 5,000. I discovered this story by reading the Wesley Daily blog, which titled the story Pastor Says Nobody Goes to Hell – Now Nobody Goes to His Church. It’s really not too surprising a result, and while 90% decline in membership may not quite qualify as “nobody going to church.”
I must confess this is a second-take on this story. My first reaction was simply that he got what he deserved. I’m not a universalist (it’s one of my unliberal positions). Without a requirement that one repent and turn away from sin, I see little of the rest of the salvation story that can hold up. As a believer in free will, I cannot accept choice without consequences. I’m afraid I lack sympathy for Rev. Pearson’s position. Did he expect Trinity Broadcasting and Oral Roberts University to go along with his position?

But my second take is simply that we may be looking at the wrong point. I believe Rev. Pearson is wrong because all of my doctrinal indicators–scripture, tradition, reason, and my own experience–stand against his position. But we seem to be either gloating because he was punished by loss of members, or judging the validity of his position by the fact that he lost members.

I suspect that if he built a church of 5,000 members while preaching a feel-good message weak on repentance and turning from sin, and then suddenly was convicted that he needed to preach a message of repentance, I would not gloat over the result. I’d feel called to pray for him and for his congregation. I’d be concerned for the 90% who left.

On the other hand I regularly hear that evangelical and charismatic congregations are growing while liberal and mainline congregations are not. As I understand the statistics, this is a fact. But is this any sort of argument to use? If the vast majority rejected evangelical or charismatic doctrine and left such churches in droves, would it be any comment on the validity of that doctrine? I don’t think so. I would hope that those pastors and teachers who espouse those doctrines don’t do so because their churches will grow as a result, but because they are convinced that what they teach is right.

I really don’t think that any substantial number of pastors of any persuasion hold their beliefs because of the numbers. I think they believe what they do for very honest reasons. But there is a danger in using numbers arguments even to back up something we know for other reasons is true.

People who become used to following the crowd, may well also follow the crowd when it heads off in the wrong direction.

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  1. I take a particular interest in church membership statistics and the claims for growth and decline and especially the cause and effect claims between certain doctrines or ecclesiologies and growth rates. The growth of the Souther Baptist Convention is often taken as a particular example of this trend in the past few decades, but it’s clear that, when the membership statistics are examined, most of that growth has come through the affiliation of existing Baptist congregations with the umbrella organization and not through evangelism. If rapid growth is to be taken as a gign of God’s favor, we should all become Mormons.

    The mainline churches have been subject to declining numbers since their high point in the early 60s. An extensive review of membership statistics and demographic trends since WWII was completed in the early 90s and offers a lot of valuable insight. Over this period of time, the Episcopal Church (to take an example I am intamately familiar with) declined approximately in half since its high point.

    Demographically speaking, any population grows or declines based on a few activities: birth rates, mortality rates, immigration and conversion into and out of the group from other churches (and from not attending). I argue that effective evangelism can only effect that last of these. It isn’t an evangelical success story if you get your members to have babies at an uncontrained rate. But it is an evangelical success if you convert in more people than who convert out to leave the denomination.

    When we examine the demographic statistics for the Episcopal Church, we discover that conversion taes are highly favorable — more people convert in than convert out so that, over time, this is a net increase to the group. The mainline churches have all exhibited two common features: low birth rates and high mortality rates (representing an older population). At least in the Episcopal Church where about 12 people convert in for every 10 out, this is insufficent to overcome a birth rate well below replacement over long periods of time.

    The mainstream churches have been a victim of their former institutional success. At a time when attending a church (and sometimes atending a certain church) was a necessary prerequisite for social standing, there’s no where to go but down once membership dosn’t become a social requirement.

  2. Thanks! I particularly like comments that blow things wide open. I’m glad I hedged with an “if” about the numbers. It is really very important to understand precisely what is measured by a set of statistics before trying to draw conclusions.

    Thanks for the additional information.

  3. I completely agree that growth rates are no measure of doctrinal “truthiness.” Witness the Muslims and Mormons (although, they are enjoying great birth rate growth due to their respective theologies, but growth through evangelism in the Global south for the Mormons has long bolstered their trends–and it is in decline). In fact, in this increasingly “religious” and “spiritual” climate, I expect to see burgeoning numbers for flaky doctrinal positions precisely because of the false comfort that is brought to bear on those concerned with life-after-death.

    You might find my blog post on this of interest:

    Carlton D. Pearson: The Charismatic Bishop of Heresy



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