Saturday, March 26, 2016

Flashback--1938: Economist and churchman Roger Babson anticipates the Church Growth Movement

Students of American economic history may recognize the name of Roger W. Babson. An economist and investment adviser, Mr. Babson was bearish about the stock market in the late 1920s, while the market was still booming. On September 5, 1929, he delivered a luncheon speech at the annual National Business Conference in Boston. Mr. Babson ominously predicted, "Sooner or later a crash is coming which will take in the leading stocks and cause a decline of from 60 to 80 points in the Dow-Jones barometer." Mr. Babson's speech immediately became front page news in the United States, earning him the nickname "The Prophet of Loss." The speech prompted a brief flurry of panic selling, but Yale University Professor Irving Fisher, approached by the New York Herald-Tribune for a response, rebutted Mr. Babson's pessimism, and within hours, the "Babson Break" had been halted, and stock values resumed their climb. Seven weeks after Mr. Babson's address to the National Business Conference, the stock market crashed, as he had predicted. 1

While looking through microfilms of old newspapers, I recently came across the name of Roger W. Babson in another context (assuming it was the same Roger W. Babson--there couldn't have been too many people with that name floating around), in this anonymous article that appeared in The Edmonton Journal, July 16, 1938 (bold in original):

Says Church Membership Must Be Taken Seriously
Babson Believes Services Will Be Oftener In Future
Considerable interest for Canadian as well as American church people attaches to remarks made by Roger W. Babson, as moderator of the Congregationalist-Christian churches in the United States, at their general council in Beloit, Wis., a few weeks ago. Sounding a note of revolt against some present-day methods in Protestant churches, Mr. Babson made a number of practical suggestions that he believed would be moves toward a more sincere and effective church life.

Too loose conception of the duties and responsibilities of church membership was the first point of Mr. Babson's attack. He deprecated the idea of "once a member, always a member" and thought it probable that in future church members might be asked for "a signed reaffirmation each year, placing on the inactive list those who do not reply." With this, it was suggested, should be a general raising of Christian standards.

Hold More Services

More efficient work in the Sunday schools, with teaching that is both more serious and more applicable to the daily needs of the young folk, was urged by Mr. Babson, who felt a "rebirth of evangelism among the young" to be highly desirable.

"Multiple services" were also recommended as a better way of using the churches' opportunities for public worship. Churches should be open more, the speaker claimed, with perhaps four or five services on Sunday, beginning with morning prayers at 8:30, to be attended by groups, rather than be entire congregations, at the most acceptable hours, and some of them to be for only 20 to 40 minutes. One of the Sunday services, probably that at 9:30 a.m., might be for discussion, and at 5:00 p.m. a vespers service. The minister's service would be given at 11:00 a.m. and repeated at evening worship and at Monday night service. "Smaller groups, more services, and shorter services will be a slogan of the present revolt," said Mr. Babson, adding that "the new assumption will be that each member will attend only one service."

Stop Competition

Other points emphasized were the need of a spirit of real stewardship in the church so that giving money to the church might be made an act of real worship; greater concern among church members about people's economic and social welfare, with a serious effort to cope with the unemployment problem; and a demand for church unity, eliminating wasteful competition between different Protestant denominations.

On the question of unity, Mr. Babson said: "Two things are certain: (1) The coming generation of young people will not stand for the foolish existing divisions of Protestants along creedal lines, with their different names. (2) The tax authorities of states and cities will not long consent to tax exemption on Protestant church property unless it is kept open at all times. There will be a movement to exempt such property only in proportion to the hours per week it is used. These two factors will force the closing of 50 per cent to 70 per cent of present church buildings and the elimination of meaningless different denominational names."
As far as I know, Mr. Babson was wrong on his last point about the tax authorities, but he was remarkably prescient in most of his recommendations: smaller groups; multiple and shorter services; emphasis on visible organizational unity and what might come under the umbrella of the "social gospel;" and an annual "signed reaffirmation," which sounds like the unbiblical "membership covenants" that Rick Warren brought in at Saddleback Community Church and have spread to other churches like a virus. All of these things are characteristic of the Church Growth Movement, and were recommended by Roger Babson, with his background in business, decades before they became standard evangelical church business practices under the influence of Donald McGavran, Peter Wagner, Peter Drucker, Bill Hybels, and Rick Warren. For further reading on the Church Growth Movement, I recommend searching the blogs Herescope and Lighthouse Trails Research Project.

Next to the article in the Journal was a photograph of a man, with the caption:

Rev. Dr. Charles Stelzle of New York, who recently suggested that the churches ought in the present financial situation to pay 25 per cent of the taxes from which they are legally exempt, as an acknowledgment of their "civic and social responsibility." He estimated that in his own city this would amount to about one dollar a year for each communicant member."

I don't know who Rev. Dr. Stelzle was, but I do know this: his suggestion was a bad idea, although it probably sounds appealing to virtue-signalling cuckservative churches of the type that adopt "Serve the World" as part of their slogans. Never voluntarily give up your rights to the state; you're not likely to ever get back any rights you've surrendered, and the state is likely to then take that surrender as the starting point for further erosion of your rights.
1. Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, The Day the Bubble Burst, 1979, pp. 267-270, 277.

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