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by James A. Mathisen
Tell Me Again: Why Do Churches Grow?
Thirty-odd years ago, Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches wrote a book he intended to call Why Strict Churches Are Strong but that his publisher insisted on titling Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.1 It was a relatively short work, with a relatively simple thesis, but it was clearly the right book on a long-overlooked topic, and it arrived at the perfect moment. Sociology of religion in North America was in the early stages of being born again after a prolonged gestation, and Kelley's book followed important works by Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, Andrew Greeley, Charles Glock, Rod Stark, and others.
Kelley argued that "the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equaled or surpassed in growth the yearly percentage increases of the nation's population. It is the sectarian groups that have had most success in attracting new members." Many people took issue with Kelley, then and later and for numerous reasons, but with that elegant thesis he framed the terms of the debate for three decades.
Recently, however, Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa Wilde have exclaimed "WRONG!" so loudly as to compel a retrospective review of the Kelley thesis and its rivals.2 Hout, Greeley, and Wilde (HGW) don't merely disagree with Kelley. They want to get his thesis off the table once and for all. Instead of growth resulting from sectarian theology and strictness, they argue for a "demographic imperative" or a "differential natural increase." Of those who have insisted for 30 years that strictness and switching explain growth, HGW say simply, "They were wrong. The explanation for the changing shape of U.S. Protestantism is demographic, not ideological."
Are the revisionists right? And what is finally at stake in the debate? To answer those questions, we have to make our way through a thicket of sociological controversy.
Dean Kelley, Strictness, and the Subsequent Discussion