Wesleyan Wisdom:Contextual changes that effect conversions

Almost no one comes to faith literally alone.  The nature of conversion is ordinarily formed within a religious matrix. Most converts to any religious faith come through the influence of  a social network—family, extended family, friends, church, college or military para-church group, lunch colleagues, Bible study group, a cultural movement, etc. etc.  Our religious beliefs and discipline  affect our vocabulary, our image of God, our first-time knowledge of religious subject matter like history, doctrine, worship liturgy, moral standards, or lifestyle.  Let us look at some of the contexts that have resulted in religious conversion, as well as those which have seen maintenance or decline.

History is revealing as we record times and movements when large numbers of people are converted to a different religious expression, doctrine, or lifestyle:

  • We see this in the 16th century Reformation and  the 17th century  “pietist” and anabaptist movements in Germany—Moravians, Mennonites, etc. In England we see it in migrations to America.  We see Quakers, Shakers, Puritans, Separatists(who evolved into Baptists).  In America we see the first Great Awakening led by Jonathan Edwards in the 1740’s after his conversion in the apple orchard. At that same time in England, Oxford don John Wesley is experiencing Aldersgate and  by 1840 Methodism, leader in the Second Great Awakening,  has become the largest denomination in America. Contemporary mass conversions were happening among the  “new light” Presbyterians and   Baptists.  Joseph Smith was developing the Mormons.
  • Following the Civil War we saw the rise of a holiness association which by the 1890’s resulted in the Nazarenes, Assemblies of God, and all Pentecostals.  In the early 20th century doctrinal conversions were happening among those who called themselves “Fundamentalists” and “Dispensationalists.”  The “Bible college sub-culture” produced people like Billy Graham who brought more converts to Christ than any person in Christian history.  His movement spawned neo-conservative para-church groups(FCA, IV, Navigators, Crusade for Christ, Bible Study Fellowship,  and non-denominational churches.
  • For two decades after World War II religion trended toward becoming more liberal.  Many people were exposed to religious  thought patterns very different from their home churches.  Many married outside their religious sub-cultures.  Society as a whole made a seismic shift toward a more liberal world view.  The old legalisms lost their grip.  Dancing, card-playing, Sunday blue laws, smoking, drinking, public education, and corporal punishment of children all changed toward a more laissez-faire  “think and let think” life style.In the 1940’s and ‘50’s mainline churches benefited from this societal shift.  The holiness and doctrinally rigid churches lost their children to more liberal denominations.  Church growth was not so much  the result of religious conversions as membership transfers and biological growth.  Interestingly, once fathers and mothers made the shift to mainline denominations, children became loyal “mainliners”  as they went to college, moved, or married.Sunday School, a new movement developed in the 1840’s grew phenomenally through the 1950’s.  In small membership rural churches, the Sunday School was  the “backbone” of the church and family religious loyalty.  Families were large and millions of older adults today remember the family value structure: “when Sunday came, we went to Sunday School.”  Attendance was never discussed and certainly not debated.  “Educational buildings” were constructed; the one room church disappeared almost entirely.  Larger churches emphasized programming activities for children and youth,  often with professional staff.  Sunday School attendance often surpassed worship attendance.  Mainline Sunday School literature, in a reaction to revivalism,  evolved in the 1880’s from a theology of “conversion” to a theology of “gradualism.”  The philosophy was “as a twig is bent, so grows the tree.”   Increasingly, church growth was biological and denominational loyalty was strong.
  • Then came the 1960’s.  A new and deeper question arose in American society. We began to ask “what is the meaning of life?” A popular song asked that generation’s skeptical question when looking at life’s celebrations and milestones—“Is That All There Is To….?”   We were a “mile wide and an inch deep.” Our religious answers came up short.  We had taught almost no Bible, no doctrine, and no denominational heritage.  When older children and young adults asked the proverbial “why?” question, parents could no longer get by with  the answer, “because I said so.”  Neither could the priest, the pastor, or the Sunday School teacher.  In 1957, the cover of LOOK magazine asked a very provocative question: “Is Sunday School the only school in the world that is not a school?”  When society began to ask questions, Sunday School flunked the test!  Also, in 1961, the birth control pill dramatically reduced the size of families.  As a resulting of these confluent developments,  Sunday School attendance dropped two-thirds of its attendance in one generation.  In thousands of churches, former classrooms were remodeled as staff offices or parlors.  Church-founded colleges lost  their denominational “pipelines”  through which the parish fed the academy.
  • By the late 1980’s visionary pundits were telling us that religion in America was facing a “Third Religious Awakening.”  Mainline denomination leaders sailed on like the captain of the Titanic.   No one listened to this “Chicken Little” doom and gloom.  We should have.  United Methodists  reared in a more liberal or laissez-faire  non-demanding religion either began to drop out of church or shift  to a more rigid and demanding doctrine and lifestyle. Either way, we lost our young adults.  The trend continues, often beginning in high school with movements like Young Life or  on state university campuses in any one of several para-church organizations. Young adults whose families simply “went to church” and who were confirmed with no real sense of conversion or commitment often  transition into a group that insists on  biblical literalism  or neo-Calvinism which puts God in total control.
  • In the 21st century the “chickens have come home to roost.”  Many, many people are weary of simplistic answers to fundamental and complex life questions.   Many have left what they cynically call “organized religion.”  Many others are converting to a religious guru or group that “has all the answers.” In this 21st century, many whom we have lost are parents with children. They want a more structured, demanding religious context than United Methodism provided them in their youth.

So far, we have looked within Christianity to track changes, changes that have brought a decline in conversions.  We must look at  the secular sector also. In today’s North American society, the normative religious shift is toward a secular lifestyle and belief structure, retaining an institutional church membership with no demands for attendance, contributions, or life style.  In short, more and more people are simply not going to church. Any social stigma related to the lack of “family religious practices” is gone.  Sunday for them is “just another day” or a day of play, not worship.  Community recreation leagues now see Sunday as “prime time” for scheduled team sports.  Affluence has had its impact as more families have second homes, less rigid work demands which allow for long weekends, and personal recreation like golf, tennis, fishing, etc.  Look at any residential neighborhood and on a given Sunday morning, you will see more folks at home than gone and if they are gone, only a minority are in any church.

In every region of the US and Canada, religion has a new landscape.  Denominationally, the growing churches are either independent, Baptist, or the former holiness churches.  Interestingly, the latter have been more open to methodological change than have our mainline denominations. Often a new faith community re-structures the family schedule, rituals, and morals.  Most of the time in churches growing with young adults, the worship is “contemporary” in music, replete with band and charismatic pastor.  Worship services lean toward the mood and movement of a concert—high emotion and low sense of reverence.  Worship is punctuated with laughter, applause, raised hands, and requests for prayer. From their new context, they see mainline denominations as “dead, formal, and boring.”  Why is this important? Because conversion by definition is “moving,” emotive, visceral.

Can we change our culture?  Most  United Methodist Churches have begun some sort of contemporary worship replete with a band and praise team. The result has been the decimation and division of the old 11:00 congregation,   not  “radical outreach” to  the pre-churched and ex-churched. Our contemporary services are a preference for many “sheepfold Christians” but  they have not motivated conversion of the “last, the least and the lost.”

How have we slept  through a religious revolution?  Three factors have enabled churches and denominations to live in long term denial: 1)We are living longer. 2)Older adults are returning to church late in life, especially those moving to small towns or the sunbelt.  3)Investment returns made charitable giving almost painless(until 2008!) ; so even with lower attendance offering plates remained “full.”   But with deaths outnumbering  professions of faith, lower returns on investments, and fears of outliving our savings, churches are hurting.

So it is that the context of conversion, the context that brought me and millions more to faith, has eroded.  As Diana Butler Bass wrote in 2012,  “This is a time of endings. Conventional, comforting  Christianity has failed. It does not work. For the churches that insist on preaching it, the jig is up. We cannot go back or we will experience the fate of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:26).   But waking up is only the first step toward awakening.”

Can we create a new context that will enable a re-awakening?  That is a question for future columns.

UMR Columnist Dr. Donald W. Haynes is a retired pastor, an adjunct instructor at  Hood  Theological Seminary, a Church staff “visitor,” and a follower of Jesus.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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