In a study whose results he says will probably be controversial, a Canadian professor contends that theologically conservative mainline Protestant churches are more likely to grow while their liberal counterparts decline.
“It is clear that theological conservatism plays a role in distinguishing growing from declining mainline Protestant churches,” concludes Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy, a paper to be published this month in the Review of Religious Research, an American scholarly journal.
The paper’s authors state that by “conservative,” they mean views that are typically held by conservative Protestants, such as a high regard for the authority of the Bible, a literal belief in teachings such as the deity and resurrection of Christ, and a belief that Christianity is true to the exclusion of other religions.
The article summarizes the results of a recent study done of 22 churches in southern Ontario, drawn from the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada. Seeking to identify the possible reasons for growth and decline among mainline Protestant churches, the authors looked at both churches that had gained and lost congregants over the previous 10 years. It surveyed 2,255 regular attendants and 29 clergy on their theological views, religious practices and other matters; the study also involved interviews of clergy and selected congregants.
Lead author David Haskell, professor of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, and his team compared the survey results with whether the churches had been growing and declining, and identified a number of trends.
The features they found that tended to be most associated with growing churches, according to the paper, were, in order of importance: how churches used contemporary worship; their emphasis on youth programs; the theological conservatism of the clergy; and the theological conservatism of the parishioners.
Although theological conservatism actually came third and fourth on this list, the paper describes its importance as a predictor of church growth as the “most notable result” to emerge from the study. This, Haskell says, is because the authors conclude from the interviews they conducted that the first two factors were in some sense underlain by the second two.
The evangelical nature of conservative Protestant theology seemed to enjoin on these clergy and parishioners, he says, an unusually high desire to adopt practices—such as contemporary worship and youth programs—deemed more likely to attract new people.
“These people are willing to modify their services, be innovative in both their worship and in their youth programs because they are inspired by their doctrine to do so,” Haskell says. “If it means guitars and drums in church, then that’s going to happen. If it means a youth group that does paintball and then Bible study, then that’s going to happen.”
The survey found that both congregants and clergy of growing churches tended to score highly on a questionnaire intended to gauge their theological conservatism. For example, asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” 93 per cent of clergy and 83 per cent of parishioners from growing churches agreed, versus 56 per cent of clergy and 67 per cent of parishioners from declining churches. Asked to respond to the statement, “The beliefs of the Christian faith need to change over time to stay relevant,” 69 per cent of clergy from shrinking churches agreed, compared to zero per cent of clergy from growing churches.
David Haskell, professor of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University and the author of Theology Matters. Photo: Contributed
Haskell’s paper acknowledges a 2014 report based on an 18-month survey of Church of England members, which claimed that theological orientation or “churchmanship” was an essentially insignificant predictor of church growth or decline. That paper argued that the prioritization of growth by clergy, a sense of clear mission and purpose among the congregation and an openness to change were more strongly associated with growing churches. But the Church of England study, Haskell says, suffered from some key flaws. Instead of surveying a large number of congregants, for example, it relied on answers posed only to a small number of “key informants.” And instead of attempting to gauge theological orientation by asking questions on specific points of belief, it asked respondents to locate where they stood on three scales—catholic vs. evangelical, liberal vs. conservative and charismatic vs. non-charismatic—a less reliable method, he says.
According to figures released this fall, the Church of England lost more than 100,000 regular worshippers over the past decade.
Even apart from the results of his study, Haskell says those who deny that church growth is linked to theological conservatism should ask themselves why evangelical churches have been growing in recent decades while mainline Protestant ones have been declining.
“You can say it’s not the theology, but you’d better be able to tell me what it is,” he says.
Dean Peter Elliott, of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, says the study will likely affect people differently depending on the assumptions they hold about the importance of congregation growth versus other factors, such as truth in church teaching and preaching.
Elliott sees in the theological conservatism presented in the study an emphasis on clarity and simplicity—traits that are likely to appeal to people but often come at the expense of deeper understanding, he says. He hopes the study won’t sway church leaders toward more simplistic teaching in a bid to fill pews.
“I don’t doubt their research, but where that leads me is asking the question, ‘So what?’ ” he says. “I worry sometimes that studies like this can be dispiriting to those of us for whom our practice of Christianity moves more in the gray areas rather than black and white, and that acknowledges the complexity of theological questions and invites thoughtful engagement with the Christian way rather than a sort of blind obedience.”
Christ Church Cathedral, often regarded as a liberal church, has seen its congregation grow significantly over the past 20 years, he says. Elliott attributes this growth at least partly to its liberal theology. People are drawn to Christ Church, he says, because it encourages “thoughtful engagement” with Christianity. “I think people feel that their intellects are respected—that their Christian journeys are ongoing through a life,” he says.
Canon Barry Parker, rector of St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto—one of the growing churches that took part in the study—says he wasn’t surprised to learn of its results. They seem to support what he’s seen in Anglican and other churches in North America, he says.
Parker says St. Paul’s Bloor Street is theologically conservative in terms of its adherence to creeds and other historic elements of the faith, though not necessarily conservative in its application of ministry.
The conservativism of his church, Parker says, has more to do with focusing on what’s essential in the Christian message than providing clarity and simplicity for their own sake. People are drawn to this emphasis on the historic teachings of the church because they’re seeking sustenance from timeless truths, he says.
“I know some people criticize us, saying people want black or white in this chaotic age, but my experience is very different,” he says. “I think people are looking for hope, and meaning, and purpose—those three particular things—and they want it with content. They want to know that what they can believe can stand the test of time, and the test of life.”
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Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.
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