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Church Growth Through Biblical Literalism?

Noah's Ark

A recent article in The Guardian (do read the whole article if you like) concludes,

Churches that are theologically conservative with beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible grow faster than those with a liberal orientation, according to a five-year academic study.

Let me put some points in dialogue with this realisation:

  • To begin with, the study is referring to Protestantism (about half of Christianity) – not Roman Catholicism (about the other half). And in Protestantism, denominations and congregations are increasing in number by breaking apart (every belief can find some “literal” Biblical justification!) at a much faster rate than new believers are joining Protestantism to fill them!
  • If your aim is increasing numbers in the pew – then Biblical literalism may be your way forward. If your aim is finding and following the Truth – then maybe not so much…
  • Biblical literalism (a 6,000-year-old universe, no evolution, a flood which covered the whole earth,…) increasingly disconnects from contemporary scholarship in science, literature, history,…
  • Historically, most great scientists and scholars (at least in the West) were Christians. Biblical literalism, rather than standing on the shoulders of these giants, parts company with their methodology and their wedding of reason and religion.
  • The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.” Biblical literalism regularly does not interpret the Bible in a literal sense.
  • Certainly, churches and Christians “with a liberal orientation” often end up with small communities – some/many people prefer any answer to uncertainty. But I believe that a Christianity that respects reason; engages positively with science, history, and literature; lives justly, greenly, and compassionately; provides a welcoming, inclusive, supportive community; and has a worship life that is built on contemplative foundations – such a Christianity not only has a future, but is attractive and attracting. That’s the sort of Christianity I espouse and want to be part of.

What do you think?

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Image by Edward Hickshttp://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~aaronson/zoo.html, Public Domain, Link

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16 Responses to Church Growth Through Biblical Literalism?

  1. Where to begin?

    I suspect one would have to spend more time than it would be worth studying the methodology of this study to parse out anything truly meaningful. On top of that, mainstream media accounts of science and religion are often woefully inadequate in scope and conclusions.

    One might as well discuss the zeitgeist of our age. (And good luck finding any agreement as to its makeup…)

    • Thanks, Kevin. One response to your point that “mainstream media accounts of science and religion are often woefully inadequate” – I think that we have to take some responsibility for that. Where is the intelligent presentation of this regularly, energetically presented by our church leadership? The fundamentalist position is what dominates. They use 21st-century technology to present non-21st-century perspectives. Too many “liberals” have 21st-century perspectives, but the media is still at the printing-press stage. Blessings.

  2. It is being said that a mistake the mainstream media made about Trump was that they took him literally and not seriously. There is something in that to ponder re how churches read the Bible …

    • Yes, Peter. Very helpful. The Trump arc is continuing much as I anticipated. The church’s arc – maybe not so much… Blessings.

  3. I was interested to learn of this study a couple of weeks ago. It covers my own part of the world (Ontario, Canada), and it offers bitter medicine to my corner of the Lord’s vineyard (the very liberal, and rapidly dying, Anglican Church of Canada).

    I found the following passage troubling:

    “Conservative believers, relying on a fairly literal interpretation of scripture, are ‘sure’ that those who are not converted to Christianity will miss their chance for eternal life,” he said. “Because they are profoundly convinced of [the] life-saving, life-altering benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church.

    “This desire to reach others also makes conservative Protestants willing to implement innovative measures including changes to the style and content of their worship services.”

    This sounds like an Amway-style cult: bring ’em in by any means. And it’s pretty much what I believed as a child and young adult. I mentally divided all the people I knew into two groups: the saved, and flaming corpses. Alone in bed at night, I would worry about which group I was in, and I would say the “sinner’s prayer” like an apotropaic charm.

    Nowadays, I would tend to see the Church less as a lifeboat for a remnant of drowning humanity than as the yeast quietly permeating the dough, which makes the whole loaf rise (Matt. 13:33).

    We the Church bear witness that Christ has redeemed every human being, that fulness of life consists in recognizing him—crucified and risen—as the ground, the law, the pattern, the source, the goal, of every human life. We are created in Christ from the foundation of the world. And we are saved by Christ, not by being converted to correct opinions about Christ. We set no limits on Christ’s saving power, but look towards a “restitution of all things” in him (Acts 3:21). We claim every act of love, every good and noble thing in humanity, as Christ’s already, inspired by him and giving glory to him. Reborn into him in our baptism, we bear witness that God is the Father of a family to which every human being is entitled to belong, and in which alone we can enjoy true human unity. We testify that to know God in Christ is eternal life—right now, and in God’s timeless life; and that to live for self is eternal death—right now, and in God’s timeless life. And with trembling we admit that a human being may freely choose death instead of life, self instead of love, and that such a choice is its own punishment. True life is not a benefit to be obtained for the self, but a gift that can only be received by dying to self. Presenting our bodies to Christ as living sacrifices, nourished by the sacrament of his Body and Blood, and growing daily by meditation, prayer, and discipline “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”—that is, into a “complete human being” (Eph. 4:13)—we trust that as we die to self Christ lives in us, and that in us and through us he continues to forgive, to heal, to release, and to restore.

    I want to share this message. Because it is true. But I am not motivated by “emotions of compassion and concern” that lead me to adopt “innovative measures” to “recruit” people.

    But on the other hand, I do not know how we would have that message to share with the world without a properly “literal” reading of the Bible—one that includes a flesh-and-blood body and an empty tomb. A Christ who made disciples, rather than disciples who made up a christ. A God revealed as truly a Father, through a true Son who was both the express image of the Father and one in nature with us, to whom we are united in a truly present Spirit. A commission to baptize disciples of all nations.

    Let us apply to the Bible whatever historical-literary-critical tools we wish. It cannot be defended or undermined by any of them. Its only vindication will be if human beings find there the promise of a restoration of the right order that human selfishness perverts, a message of their true identity as spiritual beings called to a spiritual life, not a merely material, rational existence, a hope lived out in words and actions by the Church whose book it is.

    Which is why what troubles me most of all in this study is this:

    “71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches.”

    [Said a priest friend of mine: “19%? As many as that?”]

    And:

    “46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches.”

    [One suspects that this represents only those sufficiently committed to spend time on the study interview. The real figure is probably lower.]

    This study confirms to me what I had already come to believe after teaching in a (liberal) seminary for four-and-a-half years. It’s not that “liberal” Christians don’t read the Bible “literally.” They just don’t read it at all. And I suspect that this is because many of them aren’t interested in the Bible’s message—the one I have inadequately tried to summarize above—but in one they derive from another source altogether, concerning a God that they really have imagined for themselves.

    On balance, if one had to choose, I suspect it would be better to be wrong about a “young earth” with hope in God’s message, than right about geology with no hope at all. But best of all to believe that God gave us reason for a reason, and that the Bible gives the reason for the hope that is in us.

    • Thanks, Jesse. I sort of concur with your concluding paragraph – because I don’t think that convictions about the Earth’s age are transformative. Generally, however, “young earth” tends to come with a whole lot of baggage which includes the division of humanity into “the saved, and flaming corpses”, and a clear list of who belongs to the latter (generally using the term “living in sin” to refer to sex, not tax dishonesty…) I too want to spread Jesus’ Good News (emphasising “Good”) precisely because it is good news – not dissimilar to the way I might share a cool movie or a great new cafe. We have had similar experiences about encountering the movement from works to faith – in my case it shifted the stress to “is my faith sufficient to justify?” As for not engaging (essentially daily) with the scriptures… [Those dots indicate I am speechless]. Advent Blessings.

      • Naturally, I was referring to a sincere, comprehensive literalism rather than a hypocritical, selective literalism! 🙂

        Like the story of the Evangelical who asked the Orthodox Priest, “So what’s the difference between Evangelical Christianity and Orthodoxy?” The priest replied, “Orthodoxy is all the bits of the Bible that you haven’t underlined.”

  4. the ‘church’ appears obsessed with growth but what if what you’re growing is evil. Many churches can experience growth without being literalists

    • Thanks, Norm. I’d love some examples of churches growing without being literalists. And yes – church “growth” may be manifested in some people leaving. Advent Blessings.

      • a small ‘dying’ church I know of has a new musical director which has transformed the choir which has become a byword in traditional christian music. People need a reason to go to church. Community, music, a sense of mission etc. ‘Charismatic’ churches understand these things. Many ‘bible believing’ congregations have also had a decline

  5. Bosco, I read the original article when it appeared. It seemed to me that much of what it said did not apply to the beliefs of the congregations but the enthusiasm with which they communicated them. The article really suggested that it all came down to “Nothing succeeds like success!” It may of course be that the article did not accurately reflect the study…

    • I think you are correct, Peter – especially with young people – the more (/fewer) young people that come, the more (/fewer) young people that come.

  6. the young aren’t the only ones to be concerned about. Many older members have been forced out of ‘growing’ churches. They also need a place. As people become older many become less literal. Churches with older people aren’t dying. They can be very alive with deep profound thinking

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