Paradox is intimately and profoundly connected to the Christian experience. Christians are told such things as “the first shall be last” and “to save your life you must lose it.” Now we can add a new paradox to the list: conservative theology leads to church growth and liberal theology leads to decline.
Since the 1960s, Canada’s mainline Protestant denominations — made up of the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United churches — have lost anywhere between 40 to 60 per cent of their membership. Some research colleagues and I wanted to find out why.
We’d read the previous academic studies and there was no consensus. Many of the popular texts on the subject, written primarily by mainline theologians, suggested liberal theology was the key to growth. Liberal theology calls clergy and lay people to practice a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible and to temper their belief in supernatural phenomenon in order to make their religious message more palatable for modern audiences.
As a researcher it’s not often you make a discovery that flies in the face of conventional wisdom but, when we finished assessing our data, that’s what happened. We found it is conservative theology — with its emphasis on the factual truth of scripture and God’s activity in the world — that fuels church growth. Liberal theology leads to decline.
To get to our findings we tracked down an elusive sample of growing mainline congregations, increasing in attendance by at least 2 per cent per year, and compared them to a sample of declining. We surveyed more than 2,200 of the congregants, half growing and half declining, and the clergy who serve them.
We found, without exception, the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs — such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologically conservative and the declining church clergy the least. When we used statistical analysis to determine which factors are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology was a significant predictor.
In the last week or so our findings have been widely reported and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they have also been attacked. Conventional wisdom doesn’t go quietly.