As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One[a] has no place to lay his head.”
59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”
He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”
61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”
62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”
-Luke 9:57-62 (Common English Bible)
Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article on Patheos wondering why Liberal Protestantism is dying. The writer, Connor Wood, is not the usual writer that tends to look at the downfall of Mainline Protestantism as the fault of social justice or a more friendly approach to gays. He actually sees a need for this species of Christianity and would like to see it preserved.
Wood wonders why Liberal Protestantism seems like its going down the tubes while conservative and evangelical Protestantism are at least holding its own or thriving. He thinks he has zeroed in on the answer; Liberal Protestantism doesn’t do as a good a job of forming community as its more conservative brethren.
Before I go any farther, I have to say there is a lot of truth to this. While there is a lot of talk against individualism in liberal churches (and castigating conservative churches for being individualistic), the talk is more focused on the role of government in society, not the spiritual community. People are allowed to believe mostly what they want. Wood explains:
Well, the first thing we have to realize is that conservative churches are almost always stricter than their liberal counterparts. They demand more investment, require their members to believe in more rigorous, exclusionary creeds, and don’t look kindly on skipping church four Sundays in a row to sleep in.
In the early 1990s, a political economist named Laurence Iannaccone claimed that seemingly arbitrary demands and restrictions, like going without electricity (the Amish) or abstaining from caffeine (Mormons), can actually make a group stronger. He was trying to explain religious affiliation from a rational-choice perspective: in a marketplace of religious options, why would some people choose religions that make serious demands on their members, when more easygoing, low-investment churches were – literally – right around the corner? Weren’t the warmer and fuzzier churches destined to win out in fair, free-market competition?
According to Iannaccone, no. He claimed that churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.
And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements.