Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mark Driscoll, Mainline Churches, and The Numbers Game

A while back both Adam and Sarah Walker Cleaveland posted about Mark Driscoll's recent blog entry on mainlines churches. (Mark is the founder of Mars Hill Church) I've had the posts saved in my bloglines for a while, with thoughts forming in my head about how to respond to Driscoll's post.

Driscoll, in a charming tale about filling his young son's heads with ridiculous stereotypes of mainline-church Christians, wrote about driving by a mainline church with his son, age 7:

"He asked me what that church believed and I told him they do not believe people are sinners, do not believe the Bible is to be taken literally but is more like a fantasy video game, do not believe you need Jesus to go to heaven, and do believe that being gay is cool with Christ."

He goes on to share his "ten easy steps to destroying a denomination." His first starts with "having a low view of scripture." His whole article angers me, and I'm tempted to take it point by point, but this post would end up rant-like, which I'd prefer to avoid, even though he has a lot to say about "liberal women" that I could write on at length. But I have to say that I do hate the phrase "low view of scripture" which to me only says that the speaker has a different view of scripture than I do. I certainly would never say that I have a low view of scripture - what does that mean? I've been studying the scriptures since I was a child who was curious about God and faith and how the Bible could help me understand both. I took semester after semester of Greek in college and seminary not to tear apart a book I don't care about or view lowly, but to better understand it, get closer to it. Frustrating, and very insulting.

Anyway, though, that's not the main thing I wanted to comment on. Driscoll also comments on declining membership in mainline denominations as proof of non-rightness, not-on-the-right-trackness. I also think there are things the mainline church needs to do, ways we need to drastically change if we want to offer anything relevant to people. I worry about the Church's future, life-span, and my place in an 'institutional church', which I love, but which drives me crazy. But I think statistics, increases and declines, can only be facts for us to ponder. Increasing numbers don't mean evangelical conservative churches are right. Declining numbers don't mean all mainline churches are wrong. The reverse would also be true, and you can remind me of this should evangelical and mainline churches ever be in reversed statistical places.

What do increased numbers and declining numbers really mean? This summer at my church, I've been teaching a course on World Religions - nothing fancy, just basic facts and theology of major world religions, and few that were of particular interest to the class. In my preparation, I was searching for stats about the world's fastest growing religions, and I found this at

Some of the fastest growing religions/world views are:

  • animal rights
  • activists
  • Assemblies of God
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • environmentalism
  • Evangelicals
  • Hinduism
  • International Church of Christ
  • Islam
  • Jehovah's Witnesses
  • Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews
  • non-denominational community churches
  • Pentecostalism
  • primal-indigenous religion/revitalized tribal and "first peoples" organizations
  • Seventh-day Adventists
  • Soka Gakkai
  • Sufism
  • Unitarian Universalists/Unitarians
  • Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches
  • Wicca
  • Zen Buddhism

Quite a list! And what do these movements/religions have in common? Nothing much, as far as I can see. Do you see common threads? Why do you think these things are among the fastest growing?

Of course, I want my church to grow. I want people to want to be there, be a part of a community of faith, feel like being a part, being a disciple, is something they just can't live without. But I'm also so conscious of the challenging message of Jesus. Throughout the scriptures, though we hear of many coming to believe, we hear from Jesus about how hard what he says is, and how hard it is for people to hear what he has to say. We hear during his ministry that many are not able to accept his teachings, and stop following him, turning back to where they came from. If Jesus' ministry went through a time of decline, if eventually even his closest abandoned him - does that mean there was something wrong with what he was teaching?

I want my church to grow. But I also think people can be simply attracted to what is new, flashy, easy, convenient, socially fulfilling. I think some churches, both mainline and other, can grow for wrong reasons too.

How do we assess growth in discipleship, really? I'm not sure we can do it by the numbers, the stats. I know we can't do it entirely without either. How do you measure discipleship? Right now, I think much of our interest in numbers and stats is so that we can rank ourselves, and compete against each other, and secure financial status and power within or between or over denominations. Can we engage in new ministries if their success can't be numerically measured somehow? What are signs of effective ministry that aren't numerical?

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