Etude sociologique, Décembre 2016
Across the English-speaking world, the numerical decline of mainline Protestantism is accelerating. With about a 60-per-cent drop in members since the 1960s, Canada’s Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches now see a few of their houses of worship close every month.
While most mainline Protestant churches in the West are declining, there’s been no consensus as to why. Hoping to solve this sociological riddle, some colleagues and I conducted a study. Our finished research appeared this month in peer-reviewed journals.
As the media have reported, we assembled a pool of elusive growing mainline congregations and compared them to a sample of declining. We surveyed all the church-goers – more than 2,200, a near-even mix of growing and declining – and their clergy. We found that the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches were significantly more theologically conservative. The declining church clergy were least likely to hold traditional Christian beliefs.
When we used statistical analysis to determine which factors are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal take on the Bible, was a significant predictor. Conversely, our analysis showed liberal theology, with its metaphorical reading of scripture, leads to decline.
Our research is not alone in concluding that churches with conservative doctrine grow. When growing churches have been identified by other national and international studies they have been almost exclusively conservative in doctrine. What makes our study unique is that past studies have claimed theology and church growth are not linked. Our statistical analysis proves that they are.
As we explain in our academic work, these other studies missed the link between theology and church growth because of methodological limitations. They didn’t survey congregations, just pastors, and asked just a few general questions about beliefs.
Not unexpectedly, some theological liberals have challenged our findings. Most commonly they say that it is not the type of theology that matters for church growth but whether the theology is believed strongly and articulated clearly.
However, our data show different convictions, though equally strong and clear, produce different outcomes. For example, all the growing church clergy in our study, because of their theological outlook, held the conviction that it is “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians.” As theological conservatives, these pastors believe Jesus is the only way to salvation and that they must “Go and make disciples everywhere.”
Conversely, half the clergy at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians. As theological liberals, these pastors believe there are many paths to salvation and that it’s culturally insensitive to peddle your beliefs on those outside your religious community.
You don’t need to be a seasoned researcher to deduce which of these two convictions will be more favourable to church growth.
As social scientists, my colleagues and I are not advocating the theological rightness of one doctrinal position over another. But, if we are talking solely about church growth, conservative Protestant doctrine is the clear winner. With a nod to the season, mainline clergy and congregants with conservative outlook are more apt to be singing “Silent Night” this Christmas and in future years; theological liberals risk a different kind of silent night.
Dr. David Millard Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University is lead author of Theology Matters, in the Review of Religious Research, December 2016.