Stop accepting the Bible as true and admit Christianity has gotten it terribly wrong on homosexuality. This is the advice Rev. Oliver Thomas gives in a recent opinion article in USA Today for how the church can stop “hemorrhaging members” and see brighter days.
He warns that “the church is killing itself” because it has painted itself into a corner by actually believing what the Bible says. He contends that Christians should just admit that the Bible gets it wrong on so many important issues and that “reason and experience” should be our new guide, as if this is a new idea. He says the church is terribly wrong about sexuality, particularly homosexuality, and would do very well to wise up, lest it find itself reduced to a warehouse for cobwebs.
“Churches will continue hemorrhaging members and money at an alarming rate until we muster the courage to face the truth: We got it wrong on gays and lesbians,” he says.
We don’t have to wonder whether Thomas is correct. Not only is he wrong, but an impressive body of very strong data and experience demonstrates the precise opposite of what he claims is true.
Yes, many churches are hemorrhaging members, and have been since the early 1970s. But anyone who studies these things carefully will tell you this is happening almost exclusively in the more politically and theologically liberal mainline churches. These are the same churches that are doing exactly what Thomas calls for: rejecting the credibility and authority of Scripture.
This same research shows the churches he says must change or else are holding rock-solid steady in attendance. These are the more conservative congregations that unapologetically take the Bible at its word, including on homosexuality. His advice here is not just ill-advised, but the equivalent of telling any retailer that the way to growth is to stop being helpful to your customers and jack up your prices. Let’s see how true this is.
Theological Liberalism Is a Death Knell
Research done jointly at Harvard and Indiana universities makes this clear, reporting that the number of adults attending liberalizing mainline churches has tanked precipitously from 35 percent of the American population in 1972 to 12 percent in 2016. This decline of the mainline churches began in the early 1960s when they started to question and officially change their positions on historic Christian basics like the deity of Christ, the existence of miracles, the reality of sin, and the atoning death of Jesus and His resurrection, as well as jettisoning biblical convictions about sex, gender, and abortion. People started running for the doors of these churches with every new compromise, and this exodus continues en masse today. It could hardly be worse if these pastors asked their parishioners to leave and never come back.
The Harvard/Indiana University research also shows that the churches that take the Bible as the reliable word of God are doing very well. Compromising on biblical truths was, and is, a devastating church-growth strategy. Holding fast to these truths and preaching them boldly is a very effective one. Let’s look at some real numbers from the folks at the Pew Research Center showing the same thing.
Pew’s “America’s Changing Landscape” explains that, between 2007 and 2014, mainline Protestant churches declined by 5 million adult members. This is hemorrhaging by any sober accounting. Churches in Pew’s “evangelical” category grew in absolute numbers by about 2 million between 2007 and 2014. Again, the exact opposite of what Thomas prescribes.
Where Do Gay Christians Go to Church?
When same-sex-attracted Christians go to church, they are not choosing the pews of churches Thomas is calling us to become. Again, it’s just the opposite. Research conducted jointly at Columbia University and the University of California at Los Angeles by scholars who are not shy about supporting gay politics found that gay- and lesbian-identified people are 2.5 times more likely to attend churches that took a more conservative view on Christianity (including homosexuality) than the so-called “welcoming and affirming” congregations that celebrate it.
The authors of this study were paternalistically perplexed about why same-sex-attracted people would choose churches that they assumptively described as having a “hostile social environment to LGB individuals,” as if such people don’t know what’s good for them. Well, maybe same-sex-attracted individuals find such churches are indeed not hostile or hateful.
Ironically, those rainbow flags you see flying outside some churches proudly announcing “We welcome all!” are not appealing to the very people they are intended to attract. It’s the churches that so many on the left mistakenly and irresponsibly accuse of “hating the gays” that are actually where many gay people find what they’re really looking for.
People seeking Christ are not looking for a scripture-denying church. They want the real thing, not in spite of it making real demands upon them and teaching the scriptures as they are, but very likely because of it.
Good Theology Often Attracts Worshipers
The attraction of more conservative, biblically faithful churches is demonstrated in another interesting study. Sociologists in Canada wanted to investigate if there were any distinct differences between mainline churches that are actually growing and those that are shrinking. They titled their published study “Theology Matters” because of the unavoidable clarity of their findings.
Comparing and contrasting mainline churches that were growing with those that were shrinking, their data showed conclusively that mainline churches holding more conservative theological beliefs and practices experienced congregational and spiritual growth. The theologically liberal churches only saw decline. The researchers explain that the theological and spiritual conservatism of the pastor had “a much larger effect” on church growth than the conservatism of the congregants themselves. The sheep follow the shepherd, at least when he’s taking them to more biblically faithful pastures.
Let me show you just two of the dramatic differences they discovered in belief between the growing and declining mainline churches. When pastors were asked if they agreed that “believing Christians have access to real, supernatural power in this life that is not available to non-believers,” 77 percent of pastors from the growing mainline churches either somewhat or strongly agreed that they do. However, zero percent (that’s 0.00000!) of declining mainline pastors strongly agreed with that statement, and only 19 percent moderately agreed. Most of them thought the statement was largely false.
It’s not rocket science to conclude that people are less likely to attend churches where pastors think Christianity has no real dynamism. In terms of whether Jesus actually rose from the grave in a real flesh and blood body, zero pastors from the growing churches believe He did not. From the declining churches? Nineteen percent of those pastors said He certainly did not and only 38 percent believe He absolutely did!
Even Non-Christians Hold Positive Views of Christians
Contrary to widely held assumptions, Pew shows us that the church doesn’t have a “moralistic busy-body” reputation among Americans. Fifty-four percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe the church plays a vital role in preserving moral standards in their community. Agnostics and atheists? Fifty-two (52!) percent of agnostics and 31 percent of atheists believe the church’s moral influence is important to their communities. Only 7 percent of American adults express mostly negative views of the church.
Thomas says the church and the world would be better served if Christians were guided more by reason and empiricism. Ironically, it’s these two things that tell us without equivocation that he’s terribly wrong.
It’s finally time to stick a fork in the liberalizing project within Christianity that has been hard at work over the last 60 years or so. Hard numbers judge it a massive failure on every measure year after year. The liberally compromising Presbyterian Church (USA) reported just last month that their numbers of active members and congregations continue to decline significantly even as they’ve proudly done precisely what Thomas says must be done.
He is simply one in a long line of terribly misguided clergy who believe the best thing for the church is to stop being Christian. John Shelby Spong, one of this movement’s loudest voices, wrote a book some 20 years ago entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Experience has indeed shown us he was absolutely correct. He just failed to realize it was his version of Christianity that needed changing.
This article draws from “The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World.” It releases June 18, 2019; pre-orders available now.