Church congregations continue to shrink in the United States. Pastors, ministers, priests and all sorts of church authorities are desperate to find ways to attract new members while still retaining everyone who is already a part of their congregation. Church authorities have guessed at all sorts of reasons why church goers are leaving churches. Some theorized that it was the music that was driving people away. Others thought that the key to stopping the exodus was to have more engaging sermons. Churches increased the number of Bible studies they offered, started mentorship programs and changed the structure of their worship service. Nothing helped.While churches were struggling to keep their pews filled, activists and special interest groups began pressuring churches to shift their theology to a far more liberal interpretation of the Bible. Some used social pressure, others used denominational bureaucracies and still others turned the courts into a blunt instrument to force churches to alter their beliefs. Some churches were forced to go along with it. Others fought back and refused to cave to secular pressure. Still others embraced the changes eagerly thinking that they had finally figured out why their congregation was leaving. Their theology no longer fit with the beliefs of their members. So, the church shifted its ideas to match what it believed the members of its congregation believed thinking that would stem the tide of people leaving.
Beyond the myriad issues that arise from secular pressures and intimidation being used to force churches to dramatically alter their interpretation of the Bible, it turns out that shifting theology was perhaps the worst move churches that needed members could have made. According to a recent survey, evangelical Christians do not join or stay at a church due to the church’s opportunities for service or its engaging pastor. Most evangelicals choose a church based on its theology. If that theology changes, more than half of churchgoers said they would consider leaving their church. As such, the shifts of many churches’ beliefs are actually the last thing that any church struggling to retain members of the congregation wants to emulate.
Ironically, churches may well be shrinking because of the efforts churches have made to retain members. Shifting theologies drive members of the congregation away. In an effort to hold on to members, the church alters its theology further. More members leave. The church changes its theology even more. The cycle continues unabated.
According to recent research, alterations to a church’s doctrine is by far the most likely reason for people to leave a church. More people said that they would leave a church based on changed theology than said they would change churches after moving. Evangelical Christians are more willing to make a long trip to church than they are to put up with changes in doctrine.
In many ways, this attitude should not be surprising. Doctrine is the backbone of religion. Doctrine is, essentially, the listing of what adherents of a particular faith and denomination believe. When that is suddenly changed by a faceless authority, especially a single person or committee as is common in many of the major evangelical denominations, Christians are unlikely to simply fall in line. A change in doctrine tells Christians, essentially, that what they had believed before was incorrect. Their beliefs were wrong, and should be changed to something new. This is a hard pill for anyone to swallow, but it becomes even more difficult when the shifts in theology do not seem to be backed up by anything more than the whims of activists or church authorities looking to keep member numbers high.
Christian doctrine as a whole and in each denomination has changed repeatedly over the centuries. Many of the changes were minor. Some, such as the theological differences that sparked the Eastern Schism and Protestant Reformation, were enormous and had consequences that would continue to be felt hundreds of years after the shift in doctrine. History shows, however, that changes in doctrine are far more likely to be accepted if there has already been some groundwork laid among individual members. People are more likely to accept changes that are small and can fit within their preexisting framework. Essentially, doctrinal changes work better when they deal with details instead of big issues. Baby steps are needed to deal with anything large.
Evangelicals as a group are an especially tricky group to convince to agree with doctrinal changes for a variety of reasons. Evangelicals have a long history of being distrustful of religious authority figures. A refusal to believe in the infallibility of the Pope is part of how the movement kicked off in the first place. As such, evangelicals are primed to be skeptical of any theological changes that come from the powers that be in their denomination. Evangelical denominations also place a great deal of importance on a person examining the Bible for themselves. Not every individual evangelical does this, obviously, but it does mean that each person is able and meant to check the Bible to see if theological changes fit with what the Bible says. When there either limited Scriptural evidence or no Scriptural evidence to back up a new doctrine, evangelicals are likely to say farewell to the church.
Changing doctrines in recent years have often been focused on trying to become more inclusive in order to attract new members, especially young people. This, however, has backfired on churches. Research shows that the last thing Christians want is a church that has wishy-washy theology. They want a church that can stand firm in what it believes and help its members do the same in today’s hostile society.