What with the secularization of American society, increasing moves toward and beyond relativism, and advancing political progressivism, one might presume new church plants are more liberal than churches planted 50 or 100 years ago. Actually, that’s not the case.
Based on survey information at the Association of Religion Data Archive (ARDA), churches that were founded before 1900 are more likely to be politically left-leaning than American churches founded at any time since.
Of churches that were planted more than 120 years ago, one in three can be described as politically progressive. Only about a fifth are conservative, and 25 percent are in the middle (the remainder were unknown).
Interestingly, churches planted since 1990 are the least likely of all churches to be politically liberal. They’re also slightly less likely to be conservative than churches founded between 1900 and 1989.
Churches begun in the last 30 years are most likely of all churches, by far, to be politically centrist.
Why might it be that recently planted churches tend to be in the political middle ground, or lean right, while older churches lean heavily leftward?
Two hypotheses come to mind.
- An increasing number of Christians are planting churches in some part in response to the alleged Left-ness of the culture we live in. (Note: we must never confuse the political Left with being un- or anti-Christian.) Contemporary church planting may be both a moment of spiritual restyling and of political commentary. As the culture continues to move, in fits and starts, to the Left, more and more church planters see opportunity (and hopefully feel called) to sow Christianly counter-cultural churches.
- Politically centrist and Right-leaning churches tend to be smaller, so there are more of them, while progressive churches tend toward larger congregations and fewer distinct churches. The ARDA data bears this out. Of churches in the US with 50 or fewer people, a third were established since 1990. Only 18 percent were founded prior to 1900. By comparison, among churches with congregations of between 250 and 1,000, the largest share were founded before 1900. Only one in five began since 1990. The contrast is even more stark for churches over 1,000 people, only 15 percent of which were begun in the last 30 years.
Denominational and larger church planting trends may also affect this, to me, counter-intuitive pattern. In any case, despite the stereotype of unshakably and overwhelmingly conservative churches dominating the American Christian landscape, this data seems to suggest a somewhat more middling perspective.