Orthodox convictions – and the sense that believing key doctrines matters and that this good news ought to be shared with neighbours far and near – that lead to healthy growth.
Twenty years ago Tony Campolo wrote in Can Mainline Denominations Make a Comeback? that “there are those who claim that mainline denominations are in decline because they are theologically liberal and don’t preach the gospel. I don’t believe that! [. . .] Whatever is wrong with mainline denominations, the problem does not lie with what the preachers preach or what the church people believe.”
Campolo did admit, though, that the mainline were a little too preoccupied with social and political issues. Already in the 1970s other sociologists were saying mainline churches were dying because they were liberal, and their numbers were dropping precipitously – by the tens of thousands per year. The numbers continue to plummet, but theology is often kept off the table as a significant factor in decline.
This is why a new study called “Theology Matters” just published in Research in Religion by Redeemer professor Kevin Flatt with his colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier – David Haskell and Stephanie Burgoyne – is being flagged in media from Macleans to the Globe and Mail and even the U.K.’s Guardian. It gives clear evidence that theological conservatism – understood as a high view of the authority and reliability of the Bible, an emphasis on the exclusivity of Christianity and greater openness to the idea that God intervenes in the world – is positively linked with church growth.
They surveyed 2,255 mainline church-goers in the GTA from 22 different congregations as well as their pastors. Nine of these churches were selected because they had grown more than two percent per year for 10 years. Thirteen of them were selected because they declined by more than two percent per year for 10 years. After crunching the numbers and filtering out any possible third variables, the results made clear that “theology matters” when it comes to church growth.
For example, 93 percent of pastors in the growing congregations agree that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Only 56 percent of the shrinking churches’ pastors said the same. Likewise, 100 percent of growing church pastors agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayer” but only 44 percent of pastors in declining congregations agreed. These numbers are clearly significant.
“Theological conservatism,” however, may be a misnomer; a better label might be “Christian orthodoxy,” as none of the questions ask about proximity to a denominational tradition, about creation/evolution or about social ethics (for eg., LGBTQ or women in leadership) but rather focus on the deity of Christ, the practise of daily prayer and the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death on the cross.
One might argue that cognitive assent to certain doctrines is less important than the vibrancy of a church’s ministry, its depth of love for the stranger and the richness of congregants’ spiritual practice, maturity and wisdom. But those things are much harder to measure, and were not the focus of the study. This study suggests clear convictions about Christ and his kingdom remain a key component in compelling people to church.
Bringing in the harvest
An illustration from outside of mainline institutions: The Harvest Bible Chapel association of churches originated in the greater Chicago area under the leadership of (Canadian) James MacDonald in 1988 and there are now over 70 HBC church plants in the U.S., 14 in Canada, 10 in Central America, 8 in Europe (the majority in Romania), 8 in Africa (mostly Liberia), and 13 in Asia (mostly Nepal).
I have visited the HBC congregation in Oakville, Ontario, which under the leadership of Robbie Symons leapt into the thousands of attendees in a few short years. Former Reformed church members, and even former Christian Courier writers, now attend these churches, which carry a strident and embattled American evangelical approach that has been called “neo-Reformed.” They promote themselves as “contemporary without compromise” and see their mission to “proclaim the authority of God’s Word without apology.” One young female attendee I met felt it “offered her more clarity and certainty” in her faith life than her previous church. Another couple told me they moved on to HBC from a megachurch because they wanted to move on to “deeper” Christian discipleship. They saw their former church as compromised, having to cater to unchurched patrons, and watering down its message to suit perceived outsider needs and tastes.
Ironically, the word “inclusiveness” is not spoken frequently from these pulpits, and yet they grow. Even if the number of “unchurched” converts to HBC churches is small, they are compelling conviction from other congregations perceived to be less fervent in faith. Their retention rate seems to be high. Only time will tell if they flourish for the long-term and bring sustained blessing to their neighbours.
“Jesus and the Disciples, Post-Resurrection,” artist unknown.
Shift to mission
Some in the mainline denominations are paying attention to this “Theology Matters” study. Judy Paulsen is the Director for the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, Toronto, the more conservative of Anglican seminaries in Canada. It is also the one with highest enrollment. “The House of Bishops is talking about this research,” she reassures. “Still, it will be threatening to some; it will be dismissed, denied and denigrated.”
Ernest Harrison, a Canadian Anglican minister and denominational leader, wrote in 1966 the provocatively titled A Church Without God, a purportedly “forward-looking” endorsement of a church where the Bible, resurrection and “the old morality” were of negligible significance to the church. The bestsellers of John Robinson, John Spong, Tom Harpur and currently Gretta Vospers carry on this skeptical tradition and are read by many mainline baby boomers seeking heterodox teaching.
Dr. Paulsen claims the Anglican church remains creedal in its faith. “It’s all in the liturgy,” she explained. “You can’t just say ‘anything goes.’ Now the old liberal clergy have retired, and we know orthodox theology connects with people spiritually. God hasn’t given up on us.”
The bigger picture is the breakdown of Christendom – the crumbling of old institutional structures. The church is no longer propped up by the state, and many nominal believers have left. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for the church to engage in mission,” Paulsen added. “Mission cannot be one seminary course; it must permeate every course we teach.”
There are many obstacles to overcome in this shift to mission. “When I preach in churches and ask, ‘Who are the evangelists here?’ no one has ever raised a hand. People are terrified of evangelism – it’s seen as objectifying, mechanistic and recipe-focused. But our baptism is a commissioning to bear witness, and this is the goal of our Institute: to cultivate churches as evangelizing communities. And we can’t do that without a clear, orthodox Christology.”
The “Theology Matters” research shows that contemporary worship and a strong youth program also correlate with church growth. But the researchers make clear that people attracted to a fresh style of music are not necessarily the people who commit for the long haul. It’s the orthodox convictions – and the sense that believing key doctrines matters and that this good news ought to be shared with neighbours far and near – that lead to healthy growth.
This is a limited study: only 22 congregations in Ontario. A national study is necessary. But it echoes other research. A large academic study was done in the 1990s of mainline Presbyterians in the USA. Its title, Vanishing Boundaries, suggests that the lines that distinguish Christian teachings and practises were blurring. People were confused about what their church stood for. Denominational loyalty was waning, and many of these Calvinists felt that passing on the faith to their children was imposing on the child’s autonomy. Mainline Presbyterians became distinguished only by their form of church government; any theology “specifically Calvinistic is gone.”
We might say from the standpoint of a creation theology, boundaries protect valuable goods. They define things; they create a sense of belonging and offer a place to be welcomed, worship, play and rest. Stretching out a big tent to include a wide diversity of teaching can be emotionally satisfying, but it makes identity and belonging unclear. With only a vague “other,” difference and thus dialogue and evangelism fade in significance.
A church can have a strong, particular – even theologically exclusive – identity and be a welcoming place. Christ came bearing both grace and truth (John 1:14). Grace welcomes with open arms, but it invites people to some truth – in this research specifically truth about Christ, his divinity, his life, his resurrection, his return – which point to things that either happened or did not. Theology matters because truth matters, and people respond when they sense a church has integrity about its core.
“If we’re going to be the church,” said Paulsen with some irony, “then we need to be the church.”