By Aaron Earls
Churches often make a lot of changes to try to grow, but one thing they may not want to change is their theology.
New research shows congregations and pastors who hold traditional, orthodox Christian beliefs are the ones most likely to experience numerical growth.
In their five-year study “Theology Matters,” published in the December issue of the Review of Religious Research, David Haskell and Kevin Flatt examine 22 mainline Protestant churches in southern Ontario, Canada—some growing and some declining.
Both the pastors and congregations were asked questions that Flatt, a professor of church history at Redeemer University College in Ontario, said would help the researchers determine how theologically conservative or liberal the participants were.
“Most of these questions had to do with people’s views about the Bible, traditional Christian beliefs (like the resurrection of Jesus), and the exclusivity of Christianity,” Flatt said.
When the results came back, Flatt said, the researchers were surprised at the clear pattern that emerged. The most conservative answers came from pastors at growing churches, then members of growing congregations, members of declining congregations, and lastly (the most theologically liberal group) pastors of declining churches.
Other than theology, factors that correlate with church growth include making ministry to students a priority and creating worship services that are accessible to outsiders by using contemporary worship styles and technology, according to the study.
Older congregations with older pastors are less likely to grow, Flatt said, as are churches that have recently experienced a major internal conflict. But theology is what drove the study.
While 69 percent of pastors at declining churches believe Christian beliefs need to change over time to stay relevant, not one pastor at a growing church says the same.
“The riddle of mainline death has been solved,” Haskell, a Wilfrid Laurier University sociologist, told Religion News Service.
“Our research suggests that churches don’t have to abandon or water down their core beliefs to remain ‘relevant’ or attract people to their services,” said Flatt.
“On the contrary, churches that stick to quite conservative beliefs that emphasize the truth of the Bible, the importance of sharing the gospel, and God’s continuing action in the world are actually more likely to grow.”
Every growing-church pastor surveyed (100 percent) believes God performs miracles in answer to prayer. By contrast, only 44 percent of declining-church pastors say the same.
Growing congregations and their pastors also prayed and read the Bible more frequently than those at declining ones.
Among clergy at growing churches, 100 percent believe the Bible is the word of God and is reliable and trustworthy. Slightly more than 56 percent of pastors at declining churches agree.
In The Washington Post, Haskell argues that the growth of conservative churches cannot simply be explained away based on the strength of the belief. There is something about what conservatives believe, not just how strongly they believe it.
For example, because of their conservative outlook, the growing church clergy members in our study took Jesus’ command to “Go make disciples” literally. Thus, they all held the conviction it’s “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” and thus likely put effort into converting non-Christians. Conversely, because of their liberal leanings, half the clergy members at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians. Some of them felt, for instance, that peddling their religion outside of their immediate faith community is culturally insensitive.
It should be obvious which of these two convictions is more likely to generate church growth.
As a church history professor, Flatt believes this trend could have a long-lasting impact globally. “I think we will continue to see that those forms of Christianity that adhere to traditional doctrine and a high view of the Bible will be the sources of growth and vitality, both in Western societies and around the world,” Flatt said.
“More liberal forms of Christianity will tend to give way to the growth of the religious Nones or unchurched that we have seen in recent decades in the U.S. and Canada. As the mainline has shrunk, the Nones have grown.”
Although researchers surveyed only mainline Protestant churches in Ontario, Flatt suggested the findings could be beneficial to other churches as well.
“There is good evidence from other studies to suggest that these findings are also true for other churches in other places, including the United States,” said Flatt.
Change may be inevitable in many areas, but theology shouldn’t be one of them—especially if the church wants to grow.
AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@Lifeway.com) is online editor of Facts & Trends.