SOCIO-ECONOMIC FACTORS & CHURCH GROWTH

David J. Watkins


There has always been a reluctance within organized Christianity in reference to scientific analysis of the nature of the Church. During the years 1922-1934, there was an organization called The Institute of Social & Religious Research, that attempted to pioneer in the study of the Church as a social institution. Their efforts met with violent opposition. Some of the objections to their work were as follows:

 

"objectivity presupposes indifference; the status quo is satisfactory; there is no need to study the Church as long as all seems to be well in it; the monetary costs of scientific study are a waste of "the Lord's money"; enemies of the Church may use the findings of research, research results may encourage proselyting and that scientific study is an enemy's effort to overthrow the Church."


Evangelical Christians have always laid a heavy emphasis on the subjective leading of the Holy Spirit. Many evangelicals have had difficulty reconciling the idea of the Church being a prayer subject for scientific analysis with the idea that the Church is to be led by the Holy Spirit, who gives adequate consideration to these two ideas is brought to the conclusion that, rather than being mutually exclusive, the ideas of studied analysis of the Church and dynamic leading of the Church by the Holy Spirit are complimentary in culture. It is a clear principle within the scriptures that the leading of God can best be known within the context of a sincere attempt to become aware of all realities and possibilities within a given situation. An illustration of this principle in action is found in the prologue of St. Luke's gospel. Luke gives evidence familiarity with the many accounts of the life of Christ which were in existence at the time he was writing. The gospel of Luke also gives compelling evidence of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Awareness, evaluation and guidance become part of an Integrated whole which culminates in the Gospel of Luke. What we are really saying is that God doesn't lead men in a vacuum. God may well lead a Church to proceed in a direction which would conflict with the best judgment of scientific analysis, however, God would have His people fully aware of all the human factors involved in the decision. Let us suppose that the Bible Fellowship Church is considering the opening of a church in one of several localities that does not have an evangelical witness. Let us also suppose that each of the localities has a different sociological and economic composition. what are the socio-economic factors which should be taken into Account in the consideration of which location to choose? The primary principle bearing upon this particular situation is contained in a well-authenticated assertion: There is a strong tendency within people to worship with those who are on a similar socio-economic level. It is also true that a body of churches such as the Bible Fellowship Church can be analyzed as to its economic and sociological location. If the two above factors are studied in respect to the best possible location for a new Bible Fellowship Church it will be possible to discern which locations are most promising from a human point of view. Let us suppose, in order to make the situation more concrete, that a new development with homes selling at $30,000 and upwards is without an evangelical witness. Let us also suppose that we have several families living in the general locality of the development who are burdened for this untouched area. These people are not in an economic position to buy homes within the development, but desire to minister to the people In the development. It may be God's will for this to take place; however, we should fully aware that all things being equal it would be more likely for people within the economic and social life and level of that community to start a solid work there. Being aware of the total situation makes the decision that goes against the findings of social science a real step of faith. It has been more usually true of evangelicals, who generally have come from the lower economic and social strata of society, that the locations of new churches has been rather worldly attempt at social climbing. Social studies make us pause and ask ourselves whether we really purpose to minister where we stand the best possibility of success or whether we want to get caught up in becoming more socially acceptable.


A study of the socio-economic factors at work within our own body of Churches at the present time will help us to understand some of the reasons for the deep unrest which seems to hamper our numerical growth, threaten our spiritual life, and destroy our unity in the Faith. It will be reassuring to find that some of the tendencies which cause our grief are not reflections of deep problems, but evidence of natural processes at work which are neither righteous nor unrighteous as such. Other areas of our development which have not seemed to concern us very deeply will be seen to have far reaching significance when viewed in the light of past experience in Church groups. We will find that for every particular way in which the American Society (the world) affects the Church, there are many ways in which the Church, being a society itself, reflects the processes that occur in any group when human beings from a society, be it secular or sacred. Churches, being smaller societies with a larger society (the nation) are called sub-cultural societies. Being a sub-culture we must recognize that there is a strong tendency in all sub-cultural groups to mirror the values of the mother society. Considering our own type of religious phenomena within the sub-cultural group of the Church, we should recognize ourselves as a reaction to the established Church, and we should face the fact that as a reacting group we will tend to over-emphasize our uniqueness, considering our differences with the organized Church as being more significant than they actually are.


It is also good for us to know that groups like our own have a natural developmental pattern, sociologically speaking. According to recent statistics there are over 400 sects in the United States, over half of which have less than 7,000 members. During the beginning phase of the development of a "sect" there is generally an emotional phase, in which subjective expression by the people is prominent in the services of the group. The sect usually attracts people who, besides having a spiritual need, give evidence of the need for greater emotional expression than that which is acceptable within the "churchly" situation. These people usually come from the lower stratifications of economic and social life. The strongly authoritative teaching of the sect then begins to affect the lives of adherents in ways that produce new patterns of living, which in turn will produce a gradually rising economic and social standing. As the economic and social standing of the group rises, problems become evident to those who were deeply affected by the primitive life of the sect. The change in social and economic station is largely responsible for a lessening emotional display type of service, yet, those who took part in the early life of the sect will equate the expressive emotionalism of the early days with the basic life of the Church. Fear develops that something is spiritually wrong with the new generation. Factionalism and deep distrust can easily develop in such a situation. Within our own situation we sense some disturbance that we no longer see the same type of outward response that prevailed during the early days of our development. This may be cause for deep concern, but, in order to keep our concern within proper bounds we ought to be aware that people from different educational, societal, and economic classes will express deep commitment in somewhat different ways. That expression which constitutes a legitimate response for one social group may appear to be utter hypocrisy to people from another segment of the same society. It is paradoxical that the gospel which we preach not only saves the soul of man, but it changes his way of life to the extent that he begins to rise on the social ladder; as he rises on the social ladder he begins to come into contact with folkways of the new sociological group which he has entered and he becomes suspicious because he senses some differences between the new and the old group; the gospel that saved him and made it possible for him to progress, from a human standpoint, now appears to be threatened, mainly because he expects that one's expression of faith in Christ will always correspond to what he knew it to be when he came to know the Lord. Someone has made the interesting observation regarding the progress of faith within religious groups that:

 

"Fortunes in religion are accumulated by the first generation, enjoyed by the second generation, dissipated by the third generation and lost to the fourth generation."


The experience of each generation must be firsthand, but if it is to be firsthand it must also differ from the experience of the previous generation, for it will be a faith that must exist and grow in a different situation.


A question which seems to have great interest in our Conference centers around proper modes and methods of evangelism. The societal situation is not the only factor to consider when deciding which forms and methods of evangelism will be most beneficial; however, it is one major factor that the truly "Spirit led" will want to take into account. If it is true that one does not communicate his concern for the working class by taking them to the opera, it is also true that one does not show himself to advantage in taking the upper class to the circus. May it not be true that the greater effectiveness of our early mass evangelistic efforts related to the fact that we were using the right method to reach the kind of people we were best able to contact at that time in our history. I am not ready to say that the evangelistic methods of the past should be cast aside, but I do know that we are showing the usual pattern of development within churches, which means that we are climbing the social ladder. We certainly owe it to ourselves, and more particularly to our Lord, to re-evaluate our previous methods and attempt to discern whether they are the best possible tool for our changing situation. We cannot be satisfied to say that the old methods are legitimate; we must seek to fulfill the great commission with the best methods available. The test of any form of evangelism must be based on changed lives. Several years ago I was speaking with one of our pastors, who told me that in a recent evangelistic campaign in his church there had been between 46 and 50 decisions, with well over 20 decisions for salvation. We discussed the subsequent patterns of attendance at his church and the general spiritual climate of the people. The pastor admitted that there had been no significant change in either the attendance patterns of the spiritual life of the Church. A question that we must ask ourselves in the light of this and similar situations is: Do we really believe that 40 people can make real spiritual decisions within a church in a given week, or even within a given year, without there being a radical change in the life of that church?


One evangelical pastor reported the following statistics from his experience in one church.

Results of a campaign with a professional evangelists: 92 converts. 62 were dropped before six weeks. 30 were received into membership. 12 remained as members in good standing at the time of the report.


Results of conversions stemming from the continuing outreach of the Church. 68 converts. 16 dropped before six weeks. 52 received into full membership. 80 active at the time of the report.


A Boston survey showed the following results of the efforts of a popular evangelist.


73 converts interviewed

1 changed his behavior - for the better

37 changed their speech habits, repeated religious phrases

35 changed neither their speech nor their behavior


Another survey showed that "interweaving evangelistic effort with the entire PROGRAM OF THE CHURCH was more effective in producing Church growth and spiritual development of members than a program of isolated, periodic evangelistic programs and revivals."


Perhaps the following quote sums up the picture: "Every American Church is in a changing world. There is a constant flow of members who are moving, dying, bearing children, and changing their positions in institutional life. Every aspect of the Church program must be adapted to these changes if it is to survive." It is a sociological fact that symbols - those things that had deep meaning in the past tend to live beyond their period of social and spiritual utility, Evangelize or die? Yes, but evangelize in the best way possible.


Let us change direction and discuss some of the general sociological factors that relate to the life and growth of all churches. The typical pattern of development of a denomination is as follows: Incipient Organization. The basis for a new group is present by the growing heterogeneity of an already established group. Formal Organization. Great emphasis is placed on symbolic expressions of the differences between the new sect and worldly non-members. "Saved by the blood", "baptized in the Holy Ghost", "Jesus Only" are some of the typical phrases that are used to express the differences. Others emphasize behavior which deviates from societies’ folkways such as tobacco, instruments in church, cosmetics, wedding rings, card playing, movie going, dancing. Maximum Efficiency. Leadership in this stage of development is statesmanlike as opposed to the charismatic readership of the early days. Institutional Formalism begins to sap vitality. Disintegration Formalism, indifference, obsolete, absolutism, red tape, patronage and corruption are typical of this stage of development,


Death of local churches often takes the following pattern: Pastor leaves because of financial problems. A yoke parish, student pastor or lay pastor follows. The Church is closed. Of 62 closed rural Pennsylvania Churches we have the following statistics: 28% closed for lack of funds. 38% of that 28% were churches located in growing areas. At the time of their closing they had an average of 28 members and 21 attending. 22% closed because shifting population trends brought people of other faiths to the area. 13% closed because the town was over churched. 13% closed because of congregational personality clashes. 11% closed because of unsatisfactory professional leadership. 8% had financial problems. 3% because of changes in transportation. 1 Church burned down. It is interesting to note that denominational closing of local churches usually precedes local closing by about 20 years. The continuing effects on members within the local body are far less devastating when the Church is denominationally closed before it has a chance to die a slow death.


What are some of the factors which are present in growing Churches:

-Methods and techniques in tune with the times

-"Grass roots movement" among members which emphasize evangelism by all

-Adaptability to meet changing needs Good timing

-Leadership which fits the local situation

-Broad membership standards

-High degree of loyalty and optimum social solidarity. (Social solidarity can develop into cliquishness which in turn hinders growth)

-Numerous services and diverse activities

-Adequate financial support

-Systematic budgeting

-Minimum of competition


Following are environmental factors that affect growth:

-Population growth

-High Birth rate

-Stable type of population--home ownership high

-More women than men

-Rising educational standards

-Homogeneity of population

-Economic prosperity


The successful church is not only one that gives much to causes like missions because of its relative prosperity; it typically is also one to which other churches have contributed a majority of the members.


Four of the twelve strongest Churches located by Christian Century magazine were rural . Each community had homogeneous population, adequate land base, and a unified culture which was strongly religious.


A 1950 study of successful churches showed that successful churches in poor territories had more complex programs than unsuccessful ones. They also had larger staffs than was average in better territory. In the city situation there is a relationship between the closeness of the homes of the members to the church and the rapidity of growth. The compact parishes seem to be located toward the fringe of the city.


The Southern Baptist Church grew 4000 churches in ten years and 4,000,000 people in a generation. What were some of the factors involved in this growth?

-Biological - The South has highest birth rate in the nation

-Middle class dominated - have better upward and downward reach from this position

-Local Church independence allows for great variability to meet the need of the local situation

-Aggressive lay leadership

-Sunday School and Adult Bible Classes, aggressive press, enthusiastic singing, increasing social consciousness

-Bible emphasis


A study of 35 rural Baptist Churches which were growing showed: A youthful vigor (high percentage of people under 45 years of age). High benevolent and missionary giving. Growth pattern was consistent.


What are the special problems which growth produces? "Numerical increases in size result in increased heterogeneity of membership, changes in interrelationships between members, a decline in harmony and integration, modification of leadership roles and effectiveness, diminished ego involvement by members whose present social participation tend to be in larger groups than formerly and to be based upon task involvement instead." The growing church must realize that the social relationships of old time members change and thus there are possible problems with members that the pastor tends to regard as being past the point where they will be. presenting problems within the Church.


Surveys show that churches show an overwhelming tendency to honor the socially and economically favored with high Church office. When churches grow it is generally true that people who come into the church will displace the leadership of people who come from the lower socio-economic strata of the congregation. When leadership displacement takes place one has the potential of a divisive and destroying situation. We are now discussing an area of the life of our church which doesn't seem to disturb us enough. We must come to grips with the fact that there is a great tendency to favor those of higher social standing. Perhaps it will be amusing to note that a study of all the personalities who were accorded "sainthood" in the Catholic church from the early church up until today shows two interesting things:

1. 78% of all saints are from the upper class.

2. Over the centuries the biographies of the saints tend to show that they gained social and economic stature posthumously.

Perhaps some of our own internal problems would be solved if we began to observe the injunctions of James 2 that we disregard social and economic status in our honoring of Christians. We must admit that when we as pastors talk to one another concerning the new contacts that we make we invariably mention those of our new people who have the highest economic or social status. Not only are such men honored with high office within the church, but it becomes evident that within the Official Boards themselves these men wield the greatest amount of influence.


Another problem of growth centers around the fact that many times growth Centers around charismatic Pastoral leadership. David Moberg writes of the effects of a pastoral change when this is true: "When charismatic leadership plays a major role in defining the faith of a church, frequent changing of pastors may be disastrous to its growth and vigor. If ritual is the chief bond, parishioners may detest the pastor but still continue to be faithful to the church.”



Even though Churches tend to be socially homogeneous – that is, all or most of the people coming from the same location within the social order – we find that there are many types of persons to he ministered to within the rather limited framework of any Church. Following are the results of a study of 12 Congregational Christian Churches having a membership of 4,095.

 

Intellectually Oriented 22% 20-29 years of age, college background, well informed about Bible and religion, view sermons as something to think about.

Organizationally Oriented 44% middle aged, married with children. Faithful and generous in time and money.

Creedal Belief oriented, women, older people, less educated, lower economic-sociologica1 standing. 28%

Devotionally Feeling and emotion, women, older people, lower economic standing, 23%


There is overlapping in this analysis, in that 2% of the people showed elements of all four dispositions, 33% of two or more, 33% of one, and 33% of none. Studies like this one make it clear that the pastor who does not reach some of these types of people will face a problem when it comes to seeing his church grow.


What are some of the factors that go into the selection of churches by American people? Some studies show that the personality and ability of the pastor are very important. Very often there are several factors at work such as location, pastor, friendliness of people, Sunday School, music, etc... Since there are multiple factors at work and since the magical combination will vary with lay people of different personalities and interests it is not surprising that the church with a breadth of program will generally garner more people than the church that carries on a less diversified ministry.


What is the effect of Church controversy on growth? There are several ways in which a church or group of churches can handle the problems and divisions that will undoubtedly arise in the course of organizational history. Toleration, compromise, arbitration, mediation, conciliation and victory are several methods of handling problems. There is some evidence to indicate that petty jealousies, bickering, backbiting, splits and personal or factional quarrels are the most prevalent in small congregations that emphasize intensely emotional types of religious experience. It also seems true that when a group has differences of opinion on such topics as Christ's Return, the atonement, or tithing, the addition of another difference may be decisive and cause of rupture. A major question that we must face as a conference relates to discerning whether we have doctrinal differences which are as deep and far reaching as some of the brethren seem to think, or whether our differences are in mode of expression, therefore largely semantical. If our doctrinal differences are deep, then we must face the fact that the addition of any further issues will threaten our very existence.


What are our conclusions in respect to socio-economic factors which have borne and are bearing upon the growth and development of the Bible Fellowship Church?


-We have a history which began with location in the lower levels of society.

-We are presently moving into higher stratifications of society.

-Our development has shown that we are following the same general pattern of church life that has been typical of many other groups.

            -property less to property owing

            -economic poverty to economic wealth

            -cultural periphery to cultural center

            -emphasis on evangelism and conversion to emphasis on religious education

-stress on the future world to primary interest in the future of this world

            -fervor to restraint

-large numbers of special religious services to a program of regular services at stated intervals

            -more formal hymnody

-from reliance on spontaneous leading of the "Spirit" in services and administration to fixed order of worship and administrative procedure.


It is not difficult to see from the foregoing list of developmental patterns in religious groups that our own history has been very typical. According to the social sciences the end result of this process is irrelevance and death. The question that comes to us as a body of churches is whether these bleak prophecies must indeed become true of us. It seems to me that the great danger of becoming institutional and solidly structured rests in the growing temptation to rely on and honor structure beyond its rightful place. The natural reaction to discovering that there is danger in structure would be to withdraw from the present and attempt a return to the charismatic stage of development. As we ponder the possibility of going back to the "good old days" we find that such a course would be neither wise nor practical. The uniqueness which the cultic person feels about himself is only valid so long as he can hold this idea in "good faith." From a practical point of view we must recognize that we are serving a different people today than we were serving at the time of charismatic development. What is the answer to our dilemma? We are called to be authentic in the churchly phase of development. Just because the next step in the developmental pattern is one of stagnation, is no reason for us to pull back from our present responsibilities. The life that we as individual believers have been called to live is a life of constant danger, living in constant attack from the world, the flesh, and the devil. The answer to the individual is the same answer that we must give to the church. We must be willing to live an exposed life, danger on every hand and yet a constant dependence on the Holy Spirit of God to guide and direct our individual lives and the life of our Church. Shall we proceed with the thought of the great dangers as the central thought on our minds, or, shall we go forward with the thought that we serve a great God who is able to deliver us from the snares of the devil. Let us risk all for Christ, let us take the unchanging message and relate it to our given situations in our churches and communities. May God help us to be able to see the dangers, but beyond that, may we be empowered to rise above them and see the glory of God fulfilled in our churches through a compassionate, responsible and balanced ministry of the Word.