Why, in an increasingly secular society, do some congregations grow and others shrink? Since the mid-1960s, the Canadian population has doubled, but membership at most of the mainline Protestant churches has dropped by half. On average, the United Church of Canada closes a church a week.
Some researchers have tended to see the theology of mainline churches as unrelated to their growth or decline. But Redeemer’s Dr. Kevin Flatt, Dr. Stephanie Burgoyne and lead researcher Dr. David Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University have found just the opposite.
Over the course of their five-year research project, they discovered that when it comes to whether a mainline church is growing or declining, what congregants believe — and especially what clergy believe — matters. Their major peer-reviewed study, “Theology Matters”, will be published in the December issue of the Review of Religious Research.
“Our research shows that churches don’t have to abandon or water down their core beliefs to remain ‘relevant’.”
The researchers surveyed 13 declining and nine growing mainline churches, located in southern Ontario and representing four mainline Protestant denominations: Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran.
The declining churches lost an average of two per cent or more of their attendees per year between 2003 and 2013. In the same period, the growing churches’ congregations increased by at least two per cent per year, but the truly expanding leapt beyond that rate.
Even in Southern Ontario, the most populated and church-rich part of Canada, it took a lot of looking for the researchers to find nine growing mainline churches to study. “I don’t want to overstate how many growing mainline churches there are,” Flatt cautions. Scholars have tracked dwindling mainline membership for decades. Through word of mouth, which was often more hopeful than accurate, Flatt recalls, the researchers were eventually able to gather together a pool of growing mainline congregations. Haskell, Flatt and Burgoyne surveyed clergy and 2,255 congregants. The focus on both lay attendees and on the details of their spiritual practices was important—previous studies tended to zero in solely on clergy.
The growing churches held in common what the researchers termed conservative theology: a more literal interpretation of the Bible, belief in God’s intervention in the world and the conviction that Christianity is the only path to salvation. As such, the congregants and clergy of growing churches were committed to reaching out to their family, friends and acquaintances. “When one’s doctrine reinforces a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible – and you take scripture like, ‘Go into all the world and make disciples’ fairly literally,” Haskell says, “you’re going to be more inclined and motivated to use any number of innovative strategies to make the faith accessible.”
This commitment to evangelism led growing churches to innovate, from music style to ministry. “These mainline churches that have conservative Protestant doctrine are like a peach: really easy to get into. They’re playing contemporary music, it’s family friendly, the pastor dresses in casual clothes, but there’s a hard core at the centre,” Haskell continues. “The declining churches were more like a coconut. From the outside hard to access, and then once you were in, there really wasn’t anything in the middle. This is the impression we got from the criticisms of people who had left.”
With an emphasis on youth groups and with young families in the pews, growing conservative churches also tended to be younger than their counterparts. The mean age of a growing church was 53 while it was 63 in declining congregations.
Clergy influenced their charges, the researchers found, whether conservative and growing or liberal and declining. “When we asked clergy why they thought churches grew or declined,” Haskell reflects, “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.” Growth, it seems, is spurred on by the pulpit. Or, as Haskell adds: “Ideas have consequences.”
“These mainline churches that have conservative Protestant doctrine are like a peach: really easy to get into. They’re playing contemporary music, it’s family friendly, the pastor dresses in casual clothes, but there’s a hard core at the centre,” Haskell continues. “The declining churches were more like a coconut. From the outside hard to access, and then once you were in, there really wasn’t anything in the middle.”
“Theology Matters” gives us the opportunity to slow down and seek to understand the shifting landscape of religion in contemporary Canada. Haskell, Flatt and Burgoyne’s work trickles down to encourage churches to innovate, while remaining deeply rooted in their beliefs. “Our research shows that churches don’t have to abandon or water down their core beliefs to remain ‘relevant’ or attract people to their services,” Flatt says. “As researchers, we’re not expecting that churches will change their beliefs in light of these findings, nor do we think that churches should choose their beliefs based on what they think will attract people. They should believe the things they think are true, whether they lead to growth or not. But we do think these findings help to clear the air, since some churches have been told that sticking to conservative Christian beliefs will doom them to extinction in a changing world, and that claim simply isn’t borne out by empirical evidence.”
The research has been a conversation-starter, with the story breaking in Christian, international and Canadian media. “Theology Matters” was featured in Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, World magazine and Albert Mohler’s The Briefing, among many others. The project follows the success of Flatt’s book, After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada. As the flurry of media coverage shows, research plays a pivotal role in today’s fast-paced world. Research at Christian institutions like Redeemer is crucial in equipping Christians to be culture makers in all areas of their lives.
Redeemer students are the future leaders of Canadian churches, businesses, organizations and families. They need the information and wisdom that comes from deep Christian scholarship like “Theology Matters”. Research paired with courses like Flatt’s Religion in Canada class, prepare our students, in an increasingly secular culture, to innovate while remaining true to their deeply held beliefs.