09/09/2014 03:51 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Does Declining Membership Mean God Thinks You Suck?

I found myself tangentially involved in a Facebook flame war the other day. Invigorating.

I know that when ministers and theologians have a flame war it’s never as good as when everybody else does it:

“Barack Obama embodies everything that’s going wrong with America. He’s killing the economy, the healthcare system, the traditional family, the rightful American position as chief butt-kicker in the world, and the climate. Wait, the climate’s fine. But that other stuff, yeah, that’s all on him!”

“You watch too much Fox News. He’s doing a wonderful job. How’s he supposed to do anything with that congress? Even God can’t drive a parked car!”

“Oh yeah, well, riddle me this, then: Why is Ebola on the rise again?”

“There was an outbreak in Africa? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Obama was born in Africa; Ebola’s from Africa. Do I have to connect the dots? Why is Obama trying to kill the world? That’s the question you liberals don’t have the guts to face!”

“You’re an idiot!”

“You are!”

Nope. When ministers and theologians fight on the Internet over stuff, it’s bound to be about something much less illuminating.

This little digital skirmish I found myself in had to do with the issue of declining mainline Protestant denominations. The whole thing started with the proposition by one guy that all the denominations that have yielded to pressure and have welcomed LGBT people into the fold are showing membership decline. (“Do I have to connect the dots?”)

Things, as they often do on the Internet, heated up quickly. But what I found interesting -- and completely appropriate -- was that the argument almost immediately became a meta-argument about the validity of the man’s original claim.

Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

People who took up the cyber-gauntlet in this theological death match were quick to point out the fallacy of this guy’s claim: cum hoc ergo propter hoc, that is, the problem of confusing correlation with causation.

It's a simple parlor game, really. Anyone can do it.

a. Mainline denominations have experienced declining membership.

b. Mainline denominations tend to be more theologically liberal.

c. Therefore, liberal theology has caused a decline in the membership of mainline denominations.

It's fun! Try it!

a. We used to have a huge Sunday School.

b. We used to use red pencils exclusively.

c. If we used red pencils again, we would increase Sunday School attendance.

See how easy that is?

Choose a success or failure, plug in a variable (any one will do), and shake vigorously! You can reach just about any conclusion you want!

The problem is … the answers you come up with may or may not have anything to do with the variables you use.

The Bigger Problem

But this is the Internet. Logical fallacy is the coin of the realm, right? The intransigence of trolls merely adds a dash of rhetorical piquancy to online discourse.

What struck me about our little cyber-scrum, however, was the unnamed assumption that decline was prima facie evidence of unfaithfulness. That is to say, if a denomination is in decline, the cause must be unfaithfulness -- the obverse of the oft-stated ecclesiological maxim: If they’re growing, then they must be doing something right.

Put more simply, if your denomination/congregation is declining, God thinks you suck. You’re obviously doing something wrong. Growth. Success. More. Bigger. Better. This is the crowd God cheers for.

Apparently, God only likes winners.

Except, I’ve read the Bible. So that whole “God-works-through-winners-thing” is a load of crap. Suggesting that decline and death is proof of unfaithfulness fails to take one important “fact” into consideration: Jesus.

For those who follow Jesus -- who died mostly alone, and who was considered a failure by everyone at the time of his death -- this persistent reversion to numbers as the truest metric of faithfulness is confounding at best, and borderline heretical at worst.

Look, mainline Protestant denominations are flagging. That is a fact. That they’ve also lived at the forefront of the religious struggle for inclusion of LGBT people may very well contribute to this decline.

But so what? The goal of following Jesus has never been the kind of growth that satisfies the ecclesiastical bean counters anyway; it’s about doing what you believe--were he to find himself in the same position--Jesus might do.

So, take heart. If welcoming those folks who’ve historically found themselves excluded by everyone else is the hill upon which you choose to die, you’ll certainly find yourself in good company.