Nowhere do clergy matter more than in their most deeply held attitudes. Sociologists who study religion debate whether the decline in church attendance is a matter of demand—fewer moderns want it—or a matter of supply, with would-be Christians not finding the faith they want. “When we asked clergy why they thought churches grew or declined, those in the shrinking churches replied decline was because of socio-economic factors, the influence of secular society. Clergy in expanding churches said growth was because of what they and their members did.” And what they preached, adds Haskell: “Ideas have consequences.”
It is a little strange the first time around, allows an amused Rev. Canon Barry Parker, head pastor of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in downtown Toronto, “to see people holding up their smartphones and singing along with the hymns from the service bulletin we uploaded.” But Parker says it’s only to be expected in a church that also keeps a close eye “on our social media, and how well our summer barbecue is connecting to the community.”
In tiny Leaskdale (pop. 400), 80 km north of Toronto, where Lucy Maud Montgomery’s husband once occupied the pulpit in St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, current pastor Andrew Allison nods along: “We aim to speak in the language of the listeners, not to make them learn the language of the messenger.” At St. Paul’s, the hymn lyrics appear on a big screen at the front of the church. Changing times naturally require changing means of spreading the good news of the Gospel, agrees Joel Sherbina, pastor of Paris Presbyterian Church in southwestern Ontario and an enthusiastic participant (along with the odd atheist) in the pub-based Beer, Books and Banter church group.
Innovation in outreach is not alone in linking these three pastors and churches. Their congregations are growing, making them rare buds on one of the more withered branches of Western Christianity: mainline Protestant denominations. And they are all theologically conservative churches, headed—however much they look askance at the label—by theologically conservative pastors. Conservative is a red-flag word for the pastors, too redolent of American political evangelicism with its militant anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage demands. Sherbina says his Paris congregation is Gospel-centred, supporting “different cultural views” rarely debated in church. “We would say we were Christians who hold orthodox views,” adds Leaskdale’s Allison.
Regardless of terminology, the long disputed question of just what role adherence to core Christian orthodoxy plays in a church’s numerical success—that is, whether it is growing or declining—has received a compelling and convincing answer in a major new peer-reviewed study by two Canadian academics.
In “Theology Matters”—its title a succinct summation of its conclusion—to be published in the December issue of the Review of Religious Research, Wilfrid Laurier University sociologist David Haskell and Kevin Flatt, professor of church history at Hamilton’s Redeemer University College, reveal the statistical commonalities among nine growing and 13 declining congregations in southern Ontario. The churches—located in the most church-rich part of English Canada—come from four mainline Protestant denominations: Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian, and Evangelical Lutheran. Decline was defined as an average annual loss of two per cent of attendees between 2003-13; growth by the opposite—although the truly expanding left that rate in the dust.