The Briefing 11-18-16

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If the US were a village of 100: Pew Research Center offers insight into America's religious lanscape

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New Canadian study shows correlation between theological conservativism and church growth

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From the NYT front page: "If a fruit or vegetable isn’t grown in dirt, can it be organic?"

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Transcript

The Briefing

November 18, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, November 18, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

If the US were a village of 100: Pew Research Center offers insight into America's religious lanscape

Sometimes a study comes out, an angle on research, and the big question is, why didn’t someone ask this or why didn’t someone do this before? That’s the case in a recent study that just came out from the Pew Research Center. The headline is this,

“If the U.S. had 100 people: Charting Americans’ religious affiliations.”

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We sometimes look at this giant data flow that comes to us and understand that even on a question about the religious landscape of America, it’s hard to get a handle on the world as a whole or on this nation or even on our own neighborhood. But the researchers at Pew ask a really interesting question. What if we reduce the entire question of the religious composition of the United States to a small village of 100 people? What would that small American village look like if it were truly representative of the religious diversity in the United States of America? The report was offered by Becka Alper and, as she reports for Pew, she writes,

“As of 2014, there were roughly 245 million adults in the United States, including 173 million Christians and 56 million people without a religious affiliation.”

She goes on to say,

“These are big numbers that, along with many others in the religious demographic pie, can at times make it difficult to fully understand the American religious landscape.”

That’s an important point. Sometimes big numbers are so big that they become amorphous and abstract; it becomes difficult for us to understand the reality. We do know this: America is an increasingly diverse people, it’s more diverse linguistically and culturally, it’s more diverse racially, it’s more diverse religiously. The Pew Research Center is one of most credible research institutions in the United States and they deserve credit for the pioneering research on the rise of the so-called nones, N-O-N-E-S, those with no religious affiliation. According to the best data we have now, that would include one out of five adults, That’s a stunning number. Even more astounding, it would include one out of three younger Americans under age 35.

But in this particular project—and I think it’s a very brilliant one at that—Pew has reduced the United States to a village of 100 people and asked the question, what would that village look like? This is where it gets really interesting. If the United States were reduced to a village of 100 adults, these would be the numbers. That village would include 71 Christians, two Jews and one Muslim. It’s a little bit more complicated than that, of course. That village of 100 people would include 25 who would identify as evangelical Protestants, 15 who would identify as mainline Protestants, and 6 who would identify with an historically black Protestant church. That same village would include 21 who would identify as Roman Catholics, two Mormons, two identifying as other Christians of some variety, two Jewish citizens, one Muslim inhabitant, one Hindu citizen, one Buddhist, and two who would be summarized as “other faiths.” That would leave 23 who would be absolutely unaffiliated.

Now with those numbers we can really begin to understand our village, which means the United States of America. In the first place, it would be overwhelmingly Christian by religious identification, 71 out of the 100 adults in the village. But a closer look would break that down. The largest single number would be evangelical Protestants, that’s 25 of the 100. A smaller number would be in mainline Protestant churches, and a smaller number after that in terms of the historically black churches. Twenty-one out of the 100 would be Roman Catholics. So you put that together and it reveals a picture that the United States remains overwhelmingly Christian in one way or another in terms of how the citizens of this country identify themselves. That remains very, very important and it also remains a stark contrast to other nations, especially those in the far more secularized continent of Europe, particularly northern Europe.

But you’re also looking at the fact that out of those Christians, 21 would still identify as Roman Catholic. That’s 21 out of 71. You begin to run the numbers, and the numbers also reveal how small the religious minorities really are. For instance, only two in the village would be Mormons. Of course worldwide that would be an even smaller number and one of the things we have to understand is that our village is representative of the entire United States of America, whereas the places that people live according to the religious identifications are not even. So to state the obvious in a state like Utah you would meet many more Mormons per capita, but in this village representing the entire country the number is two, Buddhist one, Hindu one, Muslim one.

What’s really significant there? Well, let’s just consider the fact that Muslims in America are very often in the news. That’s not necessarily something that they seek, but we also have to understand that as these numbers are rounded out, there’s relatively an even number of Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims in the United States. That’s a pretty huge understanding. That’s not something that most Americans probably discern. This data would also reveal that in our village there are almost the same number of Mormons as there are Jewish people. Again, that’s something that most Americans probably wouldn’t understand.

Going back to the 1950s, Will Herbert, the sociologist, famously argued that there was a tripartite division, religiously speaking, of mainstream American culture. His famous book was entitled, “Protestant, Catholic and Jew.” His argument was that the vast majority of Americans, and certainly of the American elite power structure, were divided between those three and only those three designations. That is no longer the case. That shows you how much America has changed since the 1950s. But at the same time, if you add together Protestant and Catholic and Jew in the United States now, you’re still looking at 73%. So on the one hand, America has changed dramatically. But on the other hand, not quite so much as some would claim.

I think that this statistical experiment is also greatly helpful to Christians by getting to the last number in terms of this analysis of the 100 adults; that’s the number 23. That’s the number of those would live in this village who would have no religious identification or affiliation whatsoever. Now that really helps us to understand our mission field. That means that if we take America, again take it down to 100 adults, 23 of our neighbors would have no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s a starkly higher number than would’ve been the case just a decade ago, and that is pointing towards a more secular future, a more secular village, which means, of course, a more secular nation.

But at this point, the Pew data takes an even more ominous, but very interesting turn, and that has to do with an analysis by age of the adults. And at this point what’s really clear is that there aren’t that many nones amongst those who are 65 and older; there is a clear predominance of Protestant Christianity. But by the time you get down to the age cohort of those who are 18 to 29 in our village of 100, well, the numbers become starkly different. At this point there are roughly equal numbers of nones and Protestants, and the growing percentage is not the Protestants, it’s the nones.

Some Americans, no doubt, perhaps most looking at this data, would come to the conclusion that it’s a very interesting picture of a changing America. Christians would understand that the picture is indeed very interesting. But we would also have to look at this with more than mere interest. This is an alarm, this is an urgent wake-up call to the fact that we are living in a changing America. We’re living in a changing village. It is bracing for us to understand that in this village of 100 people, even as we would have a large number of evangelical Protestants—remember that number is about 25—we would also be looking at a rising number of those who are nones. And the younger we go in the populations, the more that category of the nones grows and the more convictional Christians as numbers begin to decline.

This study really does help to clarify our mission field and our challenge. It also helps to clarify something else: America evidently isn’t nearly as secular as the cultural elites want it to be. But it turns out that it’s still far more secular than most American Christians, including evangelical Christians, probably understand it to be.

New Canadian study shows correlation between theological conservativism and church growth

Next, we cross America’s northern border to the nation of Canada where one of the most influential magazines in that country, certainly in terms of cultural trends, is the magazine Maclean’s. In an incredible article that was published just yesterday, Brian Bethune and Patricia Treble in that magazine report about what they described as an exclusive, remarkable study that finds that when you look at mainline Protestant churches in Canada, it’s those that “focus on the Gospel and prayer are growing, while those that don’t are in decline.”

More specifically, the article documents the fact that amongst mainline Protestant denominations in Canada, it is the more conservative churches that preach the gospel and hold to the exclusivity of the saving work of Christ that are growing, whereas it is the liberal churches that deny those truths that are in decline. Bethune and Treble actually described mainline Protestantism in Western Christianity as “one of the more withered branches.”

They report, however, about this new study in which it is documented that it is the theologically orthodox churches by belief that are growing and the heterodox churches that are declining. Bethune and Treble write,

“Regardless of terminology, the long disputed question of just what role adherence to core Christian orthodoxy plays in a church’s numerical success—that is, whether it is growing or declining—has received a compelling and convincing answer in a major new peer-reviewed study by two Canadian academics.”

That research is summarized in an article entitled “Theology Matters” to be published in the December issue of the journal known as The Review of Religious Research.

The researchers at two Canadian universities “reveal the statistical commonalities among nine growing and 13 declining congregations in southern Ontario. The churches—located in the most church-rich part of English Canada—come from four mainline Protestant denominations: Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian, and Evangelical Lutheran. Decline was defined as an average annual loss of two per cent of attendees between 2003-13; growth by the opposite.”

They then report,

“Answers in accord with traditional Christian orthodoxy”—that was answers given by both the ministers and the members of these churches—“[those] basic articles of faith (the ancient Creeds), the authority of Scripture, God’s visible working in the world today, the exclusivity of Christianity (Jesus as the door to eternal life), the importance of daily prayer—were tightly bound to growing life in individual churches. As well, conservative churches had a lower mean age among attendees (53 to 63), emphasis on youth groups, the presence of young families, wide participation by congregants (not only on Sunday mornings) and a commitment to evangelism.”

At that point the only obvious response is, go figure. I was able to obtain a copy of the complete report as published in the Review of Religious Research, and it includes some really important data and analysis. For example, in the abstract or summary at the beginning of the academic article, the researchers write,

“When other factors were controlled for in multivariate analysis, the theological conservatism of both attendees and clergy emerged as important factors in predicting church growth.”

Put into other language, it means the conservative churches grew and liberal churches declined. The Canadian researchers understood that this has been an ongoing argument, the results might be obvious to many, but they have not been so obvious, especially to those who are leading mainline in more liberal denominations.

The argument can be dated back at least in 1972 with the famously published book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. That book was by National Council of Churches researcher, Dean Kelley. And in the argument he made in his book, he suggested that conservative churches were growing because they were far more strict in terms of their teachings than the less strict mainline Protestant, more liberal churches. In this case we can understand that strict was a stand-in of sorts for orthodox. But in subsequent decades the thesis was debated and especially those in liberal churches tried to come up with some other explanations for the relative distinction between why conservative churches often continued to grow and why liberal churches continued to decline.

By the time you get to the 1990s, the Presbyterian Church USA, that’s the more liberal mainline Presbyterian denomination, commissioned a study asking the very same question. Researchers came back answering that question in the report entitled “Vanishing Boundaries.” And their argument came down to this: churches that believe in the exclusivity of the Christian gospel tend to grow, whereas churches that do not believe in those doctrines continue to decline. And they went on to explain why—again this might seem commonsensical and without need of explanation—but these three sociologists with theological insight went on to explain what they meant. They explained it this way: if people in churches believe that their neighbors are not going to go to heaven and will go to hell unless they hear the gospel and believe in it, then they’re going to be evangelistic.

Now that’s a key insight and that’s also affirmed in this new peer-reviewed research that was published by these two Canadian researchers. What they discovered is that churches that believe in what’s called the exclusivity of the gospel, that is that orthodox biblical teaching that was reflected in the words of Jesus himself in John chapter 14 when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me”—that has been a cardinal doctrine of orthodox Christianity throughout two millennia and more—and the documentation in this study demonstrates convincingly that the churches that abandon that belief begin to decline, and those that hold to that belief continue to grow.

But it’s not just that belief. That belief may be the single greatest predictor, but belief in the authority of Scripture, belief in the historic Christian creeds, belief in the totality of historic Christian orthodoxy is indicative of whether a church is going to grow or that church is going to decline. The numbers as reported in this academic research are absolutely convincing, indeed they’re incontrovertible.

But this research did something that previous research has not done. These two Canadian researchers looking at these churches in Canada—and remember they were in mainline Protestant denominations—the distinction was between the more conservative churches in those denominations that were growing and the more liberal churches that were declining. These researchers ask a new level of question, and that is this: is there a distinction or perhaps even a relationship between the relative theological orthodoxy or lack of orthodoxy amongst ministers when compared to the members of those churches? These researchers ask the theological questions not only of the ministers, but also of their congregations. And this result to me at least is even more significant and, if not surprising, is simply stunning. And that is this: if you take those responses in terms of liberal ministers and conservative ministers and liberal church members and conservative church members, what is discovered is that where you have a liberal minister, the church actually becomes more liberal, and where you have an orthodox minister, the church actually becomes more orthodox. The definitions here are really important. The researchers wrote,

“We operationalized the concept of theological conservatism by constructing an index for clergy conservatism and an index for congregant conservatism using the answers to the applicable belief questions in the clergy and congregant surveys. In keeping with the approach commonly used by researchers, we interpret beliefs as ‘conservative’ if they align with views typically held by conservative Protestants: a high view of the authority and reliability of the Bible, a literal belief in traditional Christian doctrines like the deity and resurrection of Christ, and an emphasis on the exclusivity of Christianity. Participants were deemed more theologically conservative if they evinced higher degrees of agreement with these beliefs. Conversely, some of the questions looked for disagreement with these conservative beliefs, or for alternative, characteristically ‘liberal’ beliefs, such as openness to change in religious doctrines, a more flexible approach to the Bible, and belief in the equivalence of religions or non-exclusivity of Christianity. While we recognize that conservative and liberal theology each have their stand-alone characteristics, in our data, responses to these ‘liberal’ items were strongly negatively correlated with responses to the ‘conservative’ items.”

In other words, they hit this pretty much square on. On many pages later in their analysis of the research they write,

“In terms of the purpose of our study, the most notable result to emerge from our analysis is the importance of theological conservatism as a predictor for church growth among these mainline Protestant churches. Our data demonstrate that within our sample, theological differences do matter for church growth. Both clergy theological conservatism and congregant theological conservatism have statistically significant positive associations with church growth in our multivariate analysis. These associations hold even when church age, clergy age, congregant age, and the presence of conflict in the congregation are controlled for and other variables related to growth (such as worship style, youth emphasis, and clarity of purpose) are held constant. Indeed, although these growing churches belong to mainline Protestant denominations, they bear a striking resemblance to conservative Protestant churches not only in their growth but also in their theological orientation.”

Pointing to what the research revealed about the importance of the theological convictions of ministers in these churches, the Maclean’s reporters wrote,

“Nowhere do clergy matter more than in their most deeply held attitudes. Sociologists who study religion debate whether the decline in church attendance is a matter of demand—fewer moderns want it—or a matter of supply, with would-be Christians not finding the faith they want. ‘When we asked clergy why they thought churches grew or declined, those in the shrinking churches replied decline was because of socio-economic factors, the influence of secular society. Clergy in expanding churches said growth was because of what they and their members did.’ And what they preached,” said one of the two researchers, “Ideas have consequences.”

And of course the Christian worldview has always affirmed and underlined that ideas do have consequences; doctrines have consequences; theological statements and beliefs have consequences. But the Christian worldview based upon the Scripture also makes clear that the most important issue about the truth of all that is revealed in Scripture is not that preaching and believing those truths leads to growing churches, but rather that it leads to eternal life. The Christian worldview is premised upon the fact that these truths are fundamentally true as revealed in Scripture, and they are life-changingly true.

And then we also come to understand as the next step, why the churches that believe and teach those truths would be growing. It is because of the compelling power of the Christian gospel. And on the other side of the equation we also come to understand that churches that no longer believe and teach those truths have decreasing power and standing in a secularized society precisely because, having given up on their orthodox Christian beliefs, they then have shrinking standing in a secularized society. To put it a different way, if biblical Christianity isn’t true, there is less and less reason to go to church, to contribute to the church, much less to invite your neighbors to church. Or you might put it another way. Churches that are determined to tell the culture that Christianity isn’t basically true and doesn’t matter come to understand that the society hears them loudly and clearly. It also turns out, shockingly enough, that liberal preachers produce liberal churches and conservative, orthodox pastors produce more conservative and orthodox churches. We really didn’t need a major academic project to tell us this truth. But for anyone looking for that research, well here it is.

From the NYT front page: "If a fruit or vegetable isn’t grown in dirt, can it be organic?"

Finally, for those who don’t want to miss a raging cultural debate, Wednesday’s edition of the New York Times had a headline story on the raging debate over what qualifies food to be organic. It turns out this is a very big question, and it has everything to do with dirt. Evidently there is pressure coming from those who are growing fruit and vegetables in what’s described as soil-free systems largely based in water. But they’re getting pushback from the current regulations and those who defend them who require anything to be labeled organic to be grown in what’s otherwise known as dirt or soil. As you might expect, there’s a federal regulation at stake; that act written in 1990 states,

“An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation and manuring.”

I don’t really have a stake in this battle, but it is interesting from a worldview perspective that we have gone from philosophers asking what truth is to a President saying it all depends on what ‘is’ means to a debate on the front page of the New York Times over the definition of organic. And it is telling that there’s actually debate right now as to whether or not something can be called organic if it wasn’t grown in dirt. With everything happening in the world, that, dear friends, made the front page of the New York Times.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing