By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
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.”
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: