A new study made by Southern Illinois University professor Darren E. Sherkat showed differing patterns of growth and decline in the current day American Church, in accordance to whom the individual denominations ‘cater’ to and where the focus of the messages are.
"It's an interesting pattern," Sherkat said. "People who are in different life circumstances will want different things from religion."
Those in poorer circumstances tend to look toward an afterlife, and their church messages are more focused on heaven and hell, sin and punishment and the glory that comes through the cross. In a sense, they are more attracted to conservative and evangelical teachings that stress scripture above deeds.
On the other hand, according to Sherkat’s observation, those in upper classes are more liberal, with messages focused on doing good deeds.
"It gives the privileged an opportunity to demonstrate they are good people by doing good in the world,” said Sherkat.
From these premises, Sherkat noticed a pattern of growth and decline in the churches, the most consistent being that the closer the church is to ‘heaven and hell’ messages, the more likely it will thrive and grow.
"Cycles of success influence what churches preach," he added.
“As they back away from heaven-and-hell messages, churches may become embroiled in other stuff such as sexuality issues or whether women should be ordained,” Sherkat said.
Sherkat’s observation is consistent to the National Council of Churches’ 2003 Yearbook of Christian Churches’ finding that similar patterns of membership losses were observed for the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ. The United Church of Christ is widely known for its liberal stance on ordaining homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions in its church. The Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church have both been engaged in a spiritual battle over the issue of homosexuality in the past several decades.
While both the UMC and the PCUSA explicitly prohibit the ordination of homosexuals and ordained ministers must vow to keep this law, several pastors break this promise and live openly and actively with their same-partners.
In the most recent case, an openly lesbian pastor of the United Methodist Church was acquitted from all charges made against her on March 20. Since the contentious verdict, thousands of Methodist parishioners and dozens of bishops have spoken out in indignation. At the upcoming UMC quadrennial conference that begins April 27, the issue will most likely take center stage, stirring up heated discussions and debates.
For the Presbyterian Church USA, several pastors were put on trial last month for performing same-sex ‘marriages’ for themselves and for their parishioners, despite clear laws that prohibit such actions; the verdict is yet to be released.
On the other hand, several of the groups that experienced denomination-wide growth in 2003 were the Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ – all three of which are known for their evangelical views and strict adherence to biblical inerrancy.