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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Why the Upstarts Win, Again

This gleaning is extremely interesting! Most young preachers I know want to be accepting and less and less demanding. This book gives another opinion.

First, not only did he publicize the liberal losses, he accepted claims by conservative bodies of continued growth.

Second, he was unwilling to brush this growth off as a momentary "backwash." Instead, he saw it as the key fact. Kelley said that the mainline churches were declining not because they asked too much of their members but because they asked too little. It was this position that antagonized so many of his critics.

Kelley argued that the flourishing conservative denominations: not only give evidence that religion is not obsolete and churches not defunct but they contradict the contemporary notion of an acceptable religion. They are not "reasonable," they are not "tolerant," they are not ecumenical, they are not "relevant." Quite the contrary!

It is ironic that religious groups which persist in such "unreasonable" and "unsociable" behavior should be flourishing, while more "reasonable" and "sociable" bodies are not. It is not only ironic, but it suggests that our understanding of what causes a religious group to flourish is inadequate. Some dynamic seems to be at work which contradicts prevailing expectations.

Kelley outlined this dynamic in three propositions:

Strong organizations are strict... the stricter the stronger.

A strong organization that loses its strictness will also lose its strength.

Strictness tends to deteriorate into leniency, which results in social weakness in place of strength.... traits of strictness are harder to maintain in an organization than traits of leniency.

As Kelley knew they would, these propositions fueled many angry denials and attacks. Nearly a decade later he reported that his book "excited a certain amount of controversy, if not actual scandal, among those who thought such things were better off unannounced"

But he was unrepentant: "Despite all the howls of outrage and screams of annoyance, I am not aware that anyone has clearly disproved any of [his major theses]."

More recently, our own work and the work of Laurence Iannaccone has provoked heated reactions when we suggest that the high demands and distinctive boundaries of sect groups serve to generate the resources needed for growth. Below we more fully explain why a costly religion can be so rewarding.

Rodney Stark, The Churching of America

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