This column is posting during the somber days of Holy Week, as Christians commemorate the death of Christ on the cross, abandoned by his closest friends and betrayed by the crowds that had welcomed him to Jerusalem with palms and hosannas just a few days earlier. Then we turn right around and on Sunday celebrate Easter and the Resurrection. In keeping with that rebirth, Catholics begin a new season of liturgical readings featuring the Acts of the Apostles in which the dominant theme is a striking contrast to the darkening arc of Holy Week. Instead of suffering and a state execution, we hear stories of miracles and growth, as a small community of believers preaches and teaches and draws thousands of converts.
These contrasting narratives separated by a few moments in time—the righteous martyr persecuted for the faith versus the exuberance of divinely-inspired growth—have shaped the church’s path through history in different eras and different places, and each has their appeal, and a degree of authority: the tiny mustard seed sown in fertile soil becomes the largest of bushes, a sanctuary for the birds of the air.
But that paradox can also be turned into a kind of shell game by which partisans can claim vindication for their side. If they are a small minority rejected by the world that proves their holiness, the reasoning goes, and if they are a burgeoning movement whose numbers are increasing it means they have the wind of the Holy Spirit at their backs. Conversely, if the ranks of their foes are tiny it shows that their enemies have clearly lost touch with the true faith, and if the ranks of their opponents are growing it means they have simply curried favor with the secular world, going with the flow to inflate their numbers.
Heads I win, tails you lose.
Never mind that imperial decrees or colonizing powers or simple demographics can undergird the greatest episodes of church growth every bit as much as right belief. The allure of the numbers game has grown in modern times, especially among conservatives and traditionalists who are scrambling to find their footing amid the social upheavals. Dean Kelley’s 1972 study, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” set the tone as a bully tract championing the success of denominations that he termed “conservative.” Kelley argued that conservative churches focused on spiritual growth and demanding commitments, as opposed to laxist liberal churches that focused merely on ”do-gooderism,” were those that retained members and drew converts because people want to be challenged and to ponder ultimate things.
Kelley’s thesis was praised for far longer than it should have been. Social trends of recent decades ought to have spiked Kelley’s thesis once and for all. Today the only “denomination” that is growing is the cohort that identifies as religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “nones,” people of no religion. In the United States, the “nones” account for nearly three-in-ten adults, far outstripping Catholics and any other denomination.
Faced with these grim realities, the self-styled “orthodox” have sometimes resorted to “remnant theology,” the idea drawn from the Hebrew Bible that a saving remnant of true believers will keep the flame alive. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a proponent of such a view, arguing that a “creative minority” of faithful Catholics would be the salvation of the church until some future Christian Springtime. The rightwing writer Rod Dreher took that idea of internal exile literally with his “Benedict Option” book in which he argued that conservative Christians should form small, intentional communities to survive in this strange secular land.
But the temptation to win by the numbers has never gone away. In the Catholic Church, devotees of the Old Latin Mass claim that they are not only nurturing the true faith in the “Mass of the Ages” but their numbers are growing rapidly; that claim isn’t true, but never mind.
In the pages of the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat regularly argues that the Second Vatican Council was “a failure” because of the downward slide in church attendance and vocations and everything else since the 1960s, and that the slide has worsened since Francis was elected pope. Yet Douthat’s argument is marginally plausible only if you examine a tiny slice of Catholicism in America and ignore the enormous growth in the church globally since Vatican II; or, vis-à-vis Francis, if you ignore the trend lines that were moving steadily downhill under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two popes whose conservatism we were told would save Western Christendom.
Whether numbers are going up or down, and for whatever reasons, it’s best to recall that conversion is at the heart of Christianity, and souls are not pelts you collect to show off. The numbers game reveals a temptation to believe that it’s what we ourselves do that will bring about the Kingdom of God. If we adopt this policy or make that argument or run these ads in the Super Bowl, Jesus wins. If we don’t, Jesus loses.
That’s not how it works. The real growth in the Acts of the Apostles derives from the examples of the disciples loving each other, living in communion, sharing all in common. That is the witness that drew so many converts to this early church, forming a multitude of one body rather than a head count to lord over your opponents.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.