Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Do Strict Churches Grow Faster?

Kelley’s (1972) Why Conservative Churches are Growing argues that mainline churches had declined, unlike conservative churches, because they were not “strict” or “serious” about their religion. In his opinion, the “placid and circumspect” character of mainline denominations did not provide the belief structure or the institutional ethos that would lead to member commitment and church growth.

I have been thinking about strict churches because the best examples of strict churches were the congregations of the followers of Jesus from the middle of the second century to the middle of the seventh century.

From the earliest years of Christianity, there has been some kind of ecclesiastical ritual available to restore baptized Christians who have committed serious sins. This ritual of forgiveness included the following requirements: sinners to feel and publicly express sorrow with explicit public confession of the details of their sins, the imposition of penitential exercises and participation in a public ritual performed after perhaps a lengthy probation period by a priest who absolved the penitent from sins.

The candidate for penance must first ask to be admitted to the order of penitents. When the bishop granted the request, the candidate would be clothed in a special penitential robe and sited with other member of the order in a reserved section of the church where each received an imposition of hands during divine service. During this period of penance, the penitent was required to observe strict abstinence and to devote himself/herself to prayers, fasting and almsgiving. The period of penance during the days of Tertullian could last a number of years but by the time of Pope Innocent I the period was typically the forty days of Lent.

At different periods in time, a different requirement was emphasized. The canonical penance system that emerged was characterized by its extreme severity. Exclusion was public as well as the performance of penitential exercises and the readmission ceremony. The most severe aspect of this system that existed from the middle of the second century to the middle of the seventh century was stated clearly by Ambrose. “There is only one penance, just as there is only one baptism.”

The Christians of this time period were certainly serious and strict about their religion. Are Conservative Churches growing today because they are serious and strict about their religion in the same sense as the Christians from the middle of the second century to the middle of the seventh century?

I wonder what the growth rate of Christianity was during this time period!

Copyrighted 2005


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