Archives for November 2016

Study Demonstrates Connection between Theology and Church Growth

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht


Via Maclean’s

In an article in the Review of Religious Research for December 2016, three researchers identified that Mainline Protestant congregations that are growing exhibited much more conservative theology than those that were declining. In the first empirical study of its kind, the five-year project found that “conservative theological positioning of clergy and attendees is a significant predictor of church growth.

Some previous studies had suggested that theology was not a factor in predicting church growth. However, those studies tended to rely upon asking only one or two questions of a single informant (usually the pastor). This new study surveyed entire congregations and asked many specific questions about religious beliefs and practices.

According to the press statement accompanying the study: “Over 2,200 regular Mainline Protestant church-goers from a mix of Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United churches in the province of Ontario were surveyed for the research with about half from declining congregations and half from growing. All clergy from the participating churches were also surveyed and interviewed. Via email and phone, a sample of over 125 congregants from the larger pool were interviewed as was a separate subsample of 70 new attendees of the growing churches.”

Written by researchers Dr. David Millard Haskell (Wilfrid Laurier University), Dr. Kevin Flatt (Redeemer University College), and Dr. Stephanie Burgoyne (Wilfrid Laurier University), the article is titled: “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.”

“One of the greatest obstacles to this study was finding Mainline Protestant churches that were growing,” observes Dr. Haskell. “However, once we did, we were able to compare the religious beliefs and practices of the growing church attendees and clergy to those of the declining. For all measures, those from the growing Mainline churches held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading.”


Dr. David Millard Haskell

According to the research summary document:

  • “In terms of adherence to conservative theological beliefs (that is, beliefs reflecting a more literal interpretation of scripture and openness to the idea that God intervenes in the world), the pastors of the growing Mainline churches were the most conservative theologically, followed by the growing church attendees, followed by the declining church attendees, and finally the declining church pastors. For example, when 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% of growing church pastors agreed, 83% of growing church attendees agreed, 67% of declining church attendees agreed, and just 56% of declining church pastors agreed. When asked if “God performs miracles in answer to prayer” 100% of the growing church pastors agreed, 90% of the growing church attendees agreed, 80% of the declining church attendees agreed, and just 44% of the declining church pastors agreed.

  • “Attendees of the growing Mainline churches engage more regularly in personal religious practices. For example, 46% of the growing church attendees read their Bibles once a week or more versus 26% of the declining church congregants.
  • “Clergy of the growing Mainline churches engage more regularly in personal religious practices. For example, 71% of the growing church pastors read their Bibles daily versus 19% of the declining church pastors.
  • “Growing church clergy and congregants are more focused on bringing new members into the Christian faith (that is, more focused on evangelism) than declining. For example, 100% of the growing church pastors agreed “It is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians” and 78% of the growing church attendees agreed, while just 56% of the declining church congregants agreed and only 50% of the declining church pastors. Furthermore, when asked to describe the purpose or mission of their church, growing church attendees most often spoke of evangelism, while it was most common for declining church attendees to name various and separate social justice activities as the purpose but without reference to religious motivation or outcomes.”

“Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” observed Haskell. “But if we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”

The study additionally found that “growing Mainline churches featured contemporary worship with drums and guitar in at least one of their Sunday services, while the declining most often used a traditional worship style featuring organ and choir. In the regression analysis the use of contemporary worship was shown to have a significant positive effect on growth. The growing Mainline churches also placed more emphasis on programs for youth than the declining. In the regression analysis, emphasis on youth programming was shown to have a significant positive effect on growth.”

Furthermore, the research showed that “while contemporary worship and emphasis on youth programming both had a significant positive effect on church growth independent of theological conservatism, the authors of the study theorize that the doctrinal conservatism of the growing church clergy and congregants fuels such innovative strategies as contemporary worship and youth programming.”

According to Haskell: “When one’s doctrine reinforces a literal interpretation of such Biblical edicts as ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,’ one is more inclined or motivated to use any number of innovative strategies to make the faith accessible to a wider community.”

Good News, The Confessing Movement, and other renewal groups within United Methodism have been saying for years that, in the words of the article’s title, “Theology Matters.” We have noted that areas where conservative theology predominates have been growing or holding steady, while areas where progressive theology predominates have experienced precipitous declines in church membership and attendance. This study demonstrates that our intuition is borne out by empirical evidence.

The researchers who authored the study suggest several possible reasons why conservative theology would have an advantage over liberal theology in promoting church growth. As reported in the research summary:

  • “Religious groups that actively recruit others or ‘evangelize’ will grow; conservative Protestant theology motivates evangelization. ‘Here’s how conservative Protestant theology appears to motivate evangelization,’ explained Haskell. ‘Conservative believers, relying on a fairly literal interpretation of scripture, are “sure” that those who are not converted to Christianity will miss their chance for eternal life. They are equally “sure” that their faith has made their own temporal life the best it can be, and that, given the chance, it would do the same for others. Because they are profoundly convinced of these benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church. This desire to reach others also makes conservative Protestants willing to implement innovative measures including changes to the style and content of their worship service.’

  • “People are more likely to be drawn to, and join, groups that radiate friendliness and personal closeness. ‘Several prominent studies in the US have determined that congregations embracing conservative Protestant doctrine, more so than other secular or religious groups, foster acts of altruism and promote social cohesion and feelings of positive relational intimacy,’ explained Flatt.
  • “Conservative Protestant doctrine is strongly linked to personal happiness. ‘Conservative Protestant doctrine, more than liberal Protestantism and certainly more than ‘no religion,’ insists that God is active, loving and close,’ Haskell explained. ‘By extension, feeling that one has a close relationship with a loving God has been shown to be one of the single greatest factors in the promotion of personal happiness. For example, in their “Faith and Happiness” study of people around the world, sociologists Rodney Stark and Jared Maier found people who feel extremely close to God are nearly twice as likely to be happy as those who do not feel near to God. Other peer-reviewed studies in the US have shown that, among the various religious groups in that country, those holding conservative Protestant orientations are the happiest. To connect all the dots… a church with a doctrine that enhances happiness keeps its members and draws others.’
  • “Just as a clear map helps us get where we’re going faster, groups with a clear, unified mission or purpose tend to outcompete groups with ‘foggy’ or wide ranging mission and purpose. Those adhering to conservative Protestant doctrine find unity of purpose through reliance on a common external source: the Bible. They take the claims and ideas of Scripture as authoritative for what should be believed and how life should be lived. Conversely, those of a liberal theological bent reject the idea that there is ‘one right answer’ based on a single, ‘proper,’ scriptural interpretation; for them there are many right answers.”

“In any contest between products or ideas, those that claim to be the ‘best’ or the ‘right one’ or the ‘truth’ have an advantage over others that present themselves as ‘similar to’ or ‘one option among many’,” said Haskell. “Theologically conservative believers feel they have the ‘Truth’ and, while there will never be complete agreement, they are more unified in terms of priorities and purpose. That unity also makes them more confident in their beliefs and, to those on the outside looking in, confidence is persuasive all on its own. Confidence mixed with a message that’s uplifting, reassuring, or basically positive is an attractive combination.”

Of course, these sociological explanations leave out the possibility that God is keeping his promise to his people through Isaiah: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). There is power through the proclamation of God’s word, the good news of the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). That power comes from the Holy Spirit, who works through our words and actions to impact people’s lives through our witness (Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:18-20).

Evangelicals within The United Methodist Church have consistently advocated for an understanding of the faith rooted in Scripture, 2000 years of Christian tradition, and outlined in our United Methodist doctrinal standards. We have done so because we believe these things to be true. “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16).

But we also believe that the best chance for the Church of Jesus Christ to be fruitful and flourish is through faithfulness to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). This study bears out our contention that a return to a more evangelical understanding of the faith will help our church arrest its decline and begin to grow, once again. “[God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). The Lord wants everyone to hear and to come to life-transforming faith in Jesus Christ. When we offer that consistent witness, people will respond!

Links to articles related to the study:

The Guardian


Religion News Service

OneNews Now





Is the Tupper Just Resolution Overreach?


By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

My colleague Walter Fenton recently reported on the “just resolution” that was reached in September over a complaint filed against the Rev. Michael Tupper of the West Michigan Annual Conference. Tupper had performed a second same-sex marriage after having agreed to a just resolution for performing a prior same-sex marriage. (In other words, this was his second offense.) A just resolution is an agreement on how a complaint over a violation of the Discipline is to be resolved, which then means that no church trial is necessary. It is essentially a plea bargain that is accepted by both sides.

A quote in Walter’s article caught my attention. “This just resolution is a rejection of the authority of General Conference,” said the Rev. John Grenfell, Jr., a former Detroit Annual Conference district superintendent and a long time advocate for clergy and laity in church disputes. “It grants permission to two elders to redefine the life and mission of the church, when only General Conference can do that.”

Does this just resolution overstep the bounds of what an annual conference can do? Does it usurp the role of General Conference, and if so, what might this portend for the future of Methodism?

First, it is important to be aware that this “just resolution” is another in a long line of unsatisfactory responses to violations of our covenant life together. There are no meaningful consequences for violating the Discipline. Instead, the violator is put in charge of a process of “educating” clergy and laity about how to live together in a new way. This approach was first used in the Amy DeLong case in Wisconsin, where a trial court (jury) sentenced the Rev. DeLong to write a paper on how to preserve the unity of the church and set up a process that allowed DeLong to guide the annual conference into a new way of doing ministry with LGBTQ people. Since then, this approach has been implemented in “just resolutions” from New York to Oregon and places in between. It is an abuse of the just resolution process that essentially uses a violation of the Discipline as a means of trying to change the church’s teaching and practice. It turns the idea of covenant accountability on its head.

Often, these “just resolutions” are entered into by representatives of the church who themselves do not support the teachings of the church. That was true in the Tupper case as well, as the Counsel for the Church (who agreed to the resolution) and new Michigan Bishop David Bard both favor changing the church’s stance on same-sex marriage.

But the recent Tupper case in Michigan goes far beyond the approach of earlier “just resolutions.” It seeks to “initiate a plan for the Michigan Area to become a model for our denomination of what the ‘Big Tent’ option would be like if it was [sic] implemented by the General Conference.” In other words, the Michigan area is going to implement a solution to the impasse over marriage and sexuality that only the General Conference has the power to implement.

Lest there be any confusion about what a “Big Tent model” might mean, the “just resolution” states “the ‘Big Tent’ option includes proposals for revisions to The Book of Discipline … that would allow local churches the freedom to discern whether to receive an openly gay clergyperson and allow pastors the freedom to discern whether to officiate at same sex weddings.” The “Big Tent model” would ignore or nullify the standards for ordained ministry (¶ 304.3), stating that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained or appointed as clergy. It would ignore or nullify the prohibition of performing same-sex marriages by United Methodist clergy or in United Methodist churches (¶ 341.6). And it would ignore or nullify the fact that all of these actions are listed as chargeable offenses in ¶ 2702.1b.

The “just resolution” goes on to set up “Training Sessions for all Michigan SPRC chairpersons … in helping them to set up a process of discernment in every local church … regarding their readiness to accept the appointment of a gay clergyperson.” In addition, it sets up a “Training Session for all Michigan clergy … to offer pastoral care for LGBTQI individuals who are considering marriage or ordained ministry.”

In other words, these are not just proposals for changing the Discipline at the next General Conference. These are plans to live as if the Discipline has already been changed. It usurps the power of General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for the church and the only body that can change the Discipline. This “just resolution” is patently illegal under church law and should be challenged before the Judicial Council.

But what does this “resolution” portend for the future of Methodism?

The Michigan plan is just another step down the road of annual conferences acting autonomously and independently of each other and of the General Conference. It is a sign that the church is already in schism.

More and more, the church is becoming a federation of annual conferences, each with different standards for ministry, different understandings of the church’s mission, and different applications (or ignoring) of church law. The United Methodist Church is no longer one body with unified beliefs and practices. If the Discipline becomes a set of optional guidelines instead of a unifying covenant, I can imagine annual conferences changing the standards for approving persons for ordination. Some conferences may accept candidates for ministry who earned their education at seminaries not on the approved seminary list. Safeguards in the appointment process for clergy to churches could be ignored. This is where the “Big Tent” or “local option” approaches will take us.

The problem with this setup is that our annual conferences are geographical, while our differences are theological and not easily demarcated along geographical lines. There are strong evangelical congregations and clergy in predominantly liberal annual conferences, and there are strong progressive congregations and clergy in predominantly conservative annual conferences. These theologically minority congregations have fundamental disagreements with the direction of their respective annual conferences. Those disagreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for the minority congregations to carry out ministry with integrity within a setting with which they profoundly disagree. And being in such a setting severely hampers those congregations’ ability to thrive and grow.

A second problem with this setup is that a “Big Tent” or “local option” approach is only a way station on the way toward the mandatory acceptance of same-sex marriage and ordained practicing gay clergy. Pro-LGBT activists will not rest until every church is required to perform same-sex marriages and accept practicing gay clergy as their pastors. The societal momentum within the U.S. supports this kind of shift. And the “local option” allows annual conferences in Africa and elsewhere in the world to maintain their current practices, while enabling the U.S. to shift over completely to a gay-affirming posture.

From my conversations with African leaders, I do not believe African delegates to General Conference will accept the “local option.” Even if they were allowed to maintain their faithfulness to Scripture on these issues, they would not be willing to allow the rest of the church to turn away from the church’s traditional teachings. Without African and U.S. evangelical support, the “local option” or “Big Tent” would probably be defeated at General Conference, as it was in Portland this year.

But because our system of church government relies upon voluntary compliance, annual conferences that refuse to comply with the Discipline will be able to continue to do so. At least ten of the 55 U.S. annual conferences have gone on record as saying they will ignore the Discipline on the issues that divide us. It would require draconian accountability measures to bring those annual conferences back into conformity with the Discipline. Such measures would probably precipitate separation on the part of progressive annual conferences.

As long as church leaders and annual conferences are willing to ignore or disobey the Discipline, the unity of The United Methodist Church will be threatened. It is such a willingness to act independently of, and contrary to, the will of the body that is tearing the body apart. That is the situation facing the Bishops’ Commission on the Way Forward, as it begins its meetings in the coming months.