What is the relationship between progressive ideology and church decline?
In a previous post, I examined the growth and decline of UK church denominations in the last five years of available membership data. I found that nearly all the pre-1900 denominations were declining. The only growing churches were founded after 1900 and were evangelical in doctrine. I supplemented this analysis using the last twenty years of data with the Limited Enthusiasm Model of church growth[2,3]. The declining churches are heading for extinction, with most pre-1900 denominations ceasing to exist before the middle of this century.
In this post, I will take the analysis further and compare each denomination’s growth and decline with their alignment to progressive ideology. If you have not read the first post, click:
A person would have to be a recluse not to know that a new ideology has been taking hold in Western societies over the last few decades. Many names identify it: Liberal progressive; diversity, inclusion and equality; critical theory and its derivatives in race, sexuality etc.; LGBTQ+; the sexual revolution; even derogatory names such as “wokeness” and “cultural Marxism”. None of these terms accurately describe the collection of beliefs and behaviours associated with the ideology.
The lack of an agreed name for the ideology makes it difficult to study objectively. For the sake of this post, I will call it the Progressive Ideology because, like earlier progressive movements, it believes that human reason overrides God’s revelation.
In some ways, the ideology is a bit like a religion. People and organisations need to show they identify with it, either as supporters or by “coming out” with a particular identity. Such public identification is like conversion. The person or organisation has “joined the cause”. They have progressed. Or, as it is sometimes put, they are on the “right side of history”. Consequently, they now receive approval from those who have already embraced the ideology.
One of the leading shibboleths of the progressive ideology is same-sex marriage (SSM), now legal in many Western countries. This practice is such a contrast to the previous history of the human race that those who approve of it can clearly show their progressive ideological credentials. Thus, Christian denominations where the progressive ideology has taken hold have been working hard to conduct same-sex marriages. In figure 1, I give the rates of membership change, indicating the denominations’ status with regard to SSM.
To date, no growing church has adopted same-sex marriage. All of these denominations hold firm to historic Christianity. Indeed they are all evangelical in doctrine. Additionally, they have statements that affirm marriage as between a man and woman only – the historical and Biblical position. I propose that their confidence in the authority of Scripture enables them to stand against progressive ideology and drives their efforts in making disciples. They know what God requires of them in both behaviour and mission.
Decline and Progressive Ideology
All the denominations that perform SSM are in significant decline and will become extinct before 2050 (see also figure 2 and the analyses in ). These are the United Reformed Church, Welsh Independents, Scottish Episcopal Church and Methodists. Clearly, their position on marriage has not caused their decline! All have been declining since 1960.
I suspect that their decline and the embrace of progressive ideology have the same cause. Could it be these denominations have a lukewarm attachment to confessional Christianity? Do they see their religion more in human terms than divine terms? For them, is Christianity more about things people do rather than what God does? If so, they have embraced progressive ideology as a positive alternative to orthodox Christianity rather than a failure to stand against societal changes. Liberal churches are not weak churches but strong ones, but strong for a different cause, a this-worldly one. The unbelieving world has changed and adopted the progressive ideology. It follows that the liberal churches have had to change as well, keeping up their accommodation to the surrounding culture.
Three declining churches are opposed to SSM: the Roman Catholics, Brethren and Salvation Army. It shows that being orthodox is insufficient to guarantee growth. Though the Catholics are not evangelical, all three have the theological motivation to make converts. Are there cultural reasons why they have failed to spread the faith? Their results suggest church decline has many causes. A warning to the growing denominations.
Potential Converts to Progressive Ideology
At present, three denominations are a battleground over the implementation of same-sex marriage. They are the Baptists, Church of England and Church in Wales. Progressive ideology has taken hold, but many still believe in orthodox Christianity.
The most conservative are the Baptists. They are an association, not a centralised denomination. Thus, individual congregations have the right to adopt SSM. However, the Baptist Union of Great Britain urges congregations not to adopt. Therefore, there is denominational tension, with a challenge to the current position in progress. Baptists have a long history of orthodoxy versus cultural accommodation. Most famously was the downgrade controversy of the late 19th century – a battle that saw the great Charles Spurgeon leave the Baptist Union. Will the Baptist’s love of scripture be sufficient for them to stand fast on marriage?
The situation has moved further along in the Church of England and Church in Wales. The church leaders, especially in Wales, want to adopt SSM. But there are many clergy and laypeople who are opposed. Churches are battlegrounds between progressive ideology and traditional Christian belief. Are these resulting tensions contributing to these churches’ decline?
The Future for Progressive Churches
What is the likely future for those denominations that embrace the progressive ideology, especially those that implement same-sex marriage?
Let me use the Church of Scotland as an example, as it is just about to adopt same-sex marriage as I write this article. In the last 60 years, its membership decline has been catastrophic, dropping from 25% of the Scottish population to a mere 5%. Figure 3 shows the actual membership numbers.
One would think that the loss of a million members in 60 years would be enough to make the denomination put conversion and recovery top of their priority list. One look at figure 3 should be enough to frighten the life out of them! Instead, their priority has been to change the definition of marriage, thus showing their progressive credentials. It reminds me of the old song; He Played his Ukelele as the Ship Went Down! So much effort on SSM is, at best, an irrelevance; at worst, it suggests complete blindness to their situation. The ship is sinking! Ditch your ukelele and save the ship!
I can go further. Currently, the Church of Scotland’s decline is a straight line, a constant rate (see the 1960-2020 section in figure 3 and the analysis in ). If that behaviour continues, as it may well do due to ageing, then the church is forecast to be extinct by the early 2040s. My Limited Enthusiasm model of church growth estimates that the church is failing to produce enough new members to prevent decline. As such, it is well below the threshold of extinction. Their newly adopted progressive approach to marriage is going to be very short-lived.
I suspect many people in the church do not support the church’s redefinition of marriage. But they do not have the power to prevent change. Like other older denominations, the Church of Scotland has a disconnect between its ecclesiastical leaders and its members. The former are not overly bothered by church decline. For them, the church is about politics and power, not size and conversion. The people who disagree are faced with the choice between leaving or staying in a congregation dominated by tensions between people for and against SSM. This is not a recipe for recovery but for accelerated decline.
The future of the progressive denominations is bleak. Despite the enthusiasm of leaders for the new ideology, they face division and despondency in the church and a faster decline. The embrace of same-sex marriage is the final gasp of churches near the end of their lifecycle. Desperately sad.
A Better Future?
Not all denominations are declining; there are growing ones: churches that stand on historic Christianity and against the progressive ideology. Can they continue to stand? Will they go further and seek a greater empowerment of the Holy Spirit, taking revival seriously? Can they learn from the rapidly growing Christian movements in other parts of the world, those for whom discipleship and replication are church priorities?
From the data here and in , I can see that the growing evangelical congregations will have surpassed the liberal and mixed denominations by the middle of the century. Most pre-1900 denominations will have either disappeared or just be a handful of congregations, including former giants such as the Church in Wales and Church of Scotland. Few churches will be left embracing the progressive ideology and performing same-sex marriages. Indeed, even Western society itself may have turned away from the ideology by then, leaving the few remaining “progressive” churches as an anachronism.
References & Notes
- Growth, Decline and Extinction of UK Churches, May 15, 2022.
- The analyses appear on pages: Church of England, Church of Scotland, Church in Wales, United Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Welsh Presbyterians, Welsh Independents, Elim Pentecostal, UK Baptists, Newfrontiers, Roman Catholic, FIEC, Scottish Episcopal Church.
- Brierley P. (2020). UK Church Statistics, No 4, 2015-2025, Brierley Consultancy. Also, previous volumes.
- I am taken by the name “Progressive Secular Gnosticism”. It picks up the idea that although it is not a religion, it is like a religion and has much in common with ancient Gnosticism. See:
- A Genealogy of Progressivism: Twentieth-Century Gnostic Liberalism, Andrew Latham, Genealogies of Modernity, 2020.
- Sacred Union Ceremonies: How Gnostics Mimic Marriage, Rev Dr Max Champion, Assembly of Confessing Congregations Archive, 2010.
- The Baptist membership figures also include smaller confessional Baptist denominations that oppose SSM.
- The Forgotten Spurgeon, IH Murray, Banner of Truth, 2009.
- CH Spurgeon and the Modern Church, R Sheehan, Evangelical Press, 2000.
- See Church of Scotland 2000–2020.
- See, for example, New Generations, Global Frontiers Missions, Church Planting Movements, 24:14.