The recent study “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy” grabbed the attention of mainline media in Canada. The study showed that mainline churches that grow in Canada tend to be theologically more conservative, led by pastors who engage more regularly in personal religious practices, and attended by Canadians who also engage more regularly in such practices.
The Jan/Feb issue of Faith Today digs into the study and asks questions we haven’t seen asked anywhere else — such as how mainline denominational leaders are responding to a study that shows church growth is found in the opposite direction theologically in which their denominations tend to be moving. We felt like readers might want even more than is in the article, so our FT team went back to two of the study’s authors (David Haskell and Kevin Flatt) and asked more questions. Here is our interview…
FT: For Evangelicals who tend to adhere to a more conservative theology, the findings that mainline churches who are more orthodox in their teaching are more likely to grow does not come as a surprise. Were you surprised? Why or why not?
DH: The most recent national studies of mainline church growth and decline out of the US and UK specifically found no link between growth and conservative theology so, going into this, we didn’t know what to expect. Maybe some other factor besides theology drives growth—that’s what these other studies said. So, to a certain extent, we were surprised after we’d run our statistical analysis. But that led us to another query: how could these other studies, using statistical analysis as well, have gotten it wrong?
We investigated and found it was the way they measured theology. As unbelievable as it sounds, they actually didn’t ask specific questions about religious beliefs.
When we looked into the issue further we noted that the major UK study—”From Anecdote to Evidence”—had recently come under fire by others claiming serious methodological flaws. They said this was problematic for the sponsor of the study, the Church of England, because leaders had begun making policy and funding decisions based on what was, in their opinion, compromised data.
FT: In our article a mainline spokesperson says this: “The findings do agree with other research. What we don’t agree with is that the growth is attributable to one theological perspective. What matters is clearly articulated theology, liturgical practice and missiology that is obvious, pursued and taught with excellence and sensitivity. That can be conservative, it can be liberal, it can be Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, charismatic – what it can’t be is lukewarm, mushy and insecure. God is way too big for any one human construct” (source: David Robinson, director of congregational development for the Anglican Church of Canada).
What is your response to that response? That it’s the strength of the teaching and not the content that matters?
DH: One cannot wish things into being. If someone says he “doesn’t agree that growth is attributable to one theological perspective” then he must provide a study that is statistically sound and numerically compelling that proves his claim. As we found, that evidence does not exist. The studies that might have supported that claim—like the “Anecdote to Evidence” study—have been shown to be fatally flawed.
Good social science is about predicting “what is most likely to occur.” There may be growing liberal Protestant churches but the statistical evidence shows that is not what is most likely to occur. Reverend Robinson’s concluding comment is also problematic in that it contains a logical inconsistency. He claims that if liberal theology is “clearly articulated… pursued and taught with excellence and sensitivity” it will lead to church growth.
But how could this “clear articulation” of liberal theology ever happen? At its very core liberal theology insists that there is no single “correct” interpretation of Scripture and that there is no “authoritative” belief that must be held. That being the case, the best one can do when articulating liberal theology is to provide options of what one might believe, or not, and these decisions remain the purview of each individual: “What’s clear for you need not be clear for me.”
Most problematic of all is Robinson’s suggestion that different ideas will lead to the same results as long as the ideas are held strongly and are not “lukewarm, mushy and insecure.” That doesn’t make sense. Let’s say a theological conservative holds the idea that Christianity is the only means of satisfaction in this life and the only means of salvation in the afterlife. Now let’s say a theological liberal holds the idea that Christianity is just one spiritual path to satisfaction in this life and that the afterlife is likely just a metaphor. Between those two people, who do you think is more likely to promote their faith to friends, neighbors and colleagues? Both people hold their convictions strongly but the content of their convictions inspires different actions.
FT: Our article quotes sociologist Reg Bibby and his belief that immigration is having a profound impact on the growth and decline of the mainline church in Canada. Can you help our readers understand that impact, and why it is more or less significant in your opinion, and in your research?
KF: Immigration is, and has always been, a major factor driving church growth and decline in Canada. Mainline Protestant churches used to benefit from the large-scale immigration of Protestants from Britain and the rest of Europe, but that source of people has been drying up since the 1960s, and this helps explain the decline of the mainline groups since then. Immigration is by no means the only factor, however.
Conservative evangelical groups that also historically drew their people from British and European immigration, like most Baptist and Mennonite Brethren groups, for example, continued to grow after the 1960s while the mainline churches were rapidly shrinking. In our study, it’s important to note that all of the churches came from the same four mainline denominations. They all face the same immigration-based challenges and opportunities. So what sets the growing ones apart? We argue that one of the important differences is their theology.
FT: Our article says: “Theological conservativism is not itself a guarantee of growth, the authors stress. A shrinking local population, an un-friendly congregation, a weak preacher or being surrounded by growing churches – those are some of the many factors that can work against a church with conservative theology.”
Can you help our readers understand this a little more? A church can meet the “conservative theological” requirement for growth, but that is not enough?
KF: Something like the growth or decline of a human organization is always affected by many different factors. In the case of churches, these include “external” factors beyond their control, like population growth or decline, the effects of mass media and education systems, economic factors, and so on, as well as “internal” factors like what they believe, the abilities of their leaders, the types of programs they offer, and the like. (It’s also important to remember that there are many things at work in the world that are not visible to social scientists — we have blind spots too!) Growth or decline is the net result of all of these things, rather than any single factor. There is no silver bullet that will guarantee church growth under any circumstances; instead, there are things that will make growth more or less likely, including some things that churches can control.
FT: Researcher Joel Theissen is quoted in the article as saying: “There are some mainline groups that are growing due to their liberal theology. They attract mainly disenfranchised folks from Catholic and evangelical settings who are intrigued with inclusivity toward the LGBTQ community [and other marginalized groups].” How would you respond to this?
DH: There are definitely some liberal churches that are experiencing growth and that growth is primarily from folks who started in a conservative church and left because they disagreed with some aspect of the theology. But for such churches, therein lies the poison pill. These churches don’t tend to be able to create “new Christians” but rely almost exclusively on other churches to do the “conversion” work for them.
If they are growing it is only because other, typically more conservative churches, ignited religious interest in their congregants in the first place (most likely in their youth). These churches are thus the “mules” of the ecclesiastical world: they look healthy but are unable to reproduce. Furthermore, as studies of Unitarian churches in the US have shown, these churches are among the very worst at holding on to their young as the parents who attend feel almost no compulsion to pass along their faith to their kids. As such, these churches would only ever make up a very small percent of churches that are currently growing and their growth is not likely to be lasting.
Regarding a church’s attractiveness increasing to the extent that it promotes “inclusivity toward the LGBTQ community” we didn’t ask our respondents any questions related to that specific issue. However, it’s definitely true that some people raised in a more conservative tradition want to abandon their home faith community because of beliefs they feel are unjust or at odds with the culture.
KF: Again, we hear lots of anecdotal reports that liberal churches are growing, but there is very little empirical evidence to show that this is happening on a large scale. While there are no doubt some isolated examples, to which Dave’s description would apply, if it were a major trend there should be plenty of evidence for it, and that just doesn’t seem to be the case.
FT: So, may Evangelicals take a moment to gloat over this study, or would that be a mistake?
KF: God forbid! First of all, Evangelicals take Scripture as their authority. Paul writes, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
Secondly, growth or numerical success are no guarantee of truth. There are lots of religious groups that are growing in the world today, such as Mormonism and traditionalist Islam. In Canada the fastest growing “religious” group is those who say they have no religion. Should Evangelicals therefore conclude that these groups are right, or that God favours them? Assessing the value of a group or its teachings by numbers is a dangerous path.
No, Evangelicals should hold fast to what is true, not because it may or may not lead to growth, but because it is true. At most, our research contributes to a large body of evidence that churches who stick to traditional beliefs can grow and thrive, even in today’s world, and that abandoning those beliefs in search of relevance and popular appeal is a fool’s errand.
DH: When it comes to growth, there is no doubt that evangelical churches have a lot they are doing right but they are not in a position to gloat. They still lose about half of their young people and for all their talk of evangelizing, on average, only about 8% of their adult adherents come from un-churched backgrounds.
We saw in our study that a key trait of declining churches was a strong inward focus. Many evangelical churches have that same kind of “take care of our own” mentality. If they want to see substantial growth in their churches, Evangelicals need to leave their pews and go into their communities. They need to create external events — away from their churches — that build relationships but also include a clear faith component.
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