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Consulting the faithful:

Conservative persistence and congregational flourishing

Much of mainline theology over the last hundred years has been an attempt to repackage the gospel into modern categories. Lutheran theologian Rudolf Karl Bultmann wrote in 1941 that “the task of theology is to demythologize the Christian proclamation.” He wanted to take out the “mythological” aspects of the scriptures – the miraculous, cosmos-wide scope of the text – and translate it into statements about human questions and choices. He famously wrote, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

Bultmann assumed, along with many of his colleagues, that people “just can’t believe that stuff anymore.” For many theologians, this philosophical turn was biographical. Caught in a wave of secularization theory, they assumed that modernization co-develops with rationalization and skepticism. Religion was a primitive scientific theory that would eventually fade out.

Part of this is true. The fastest growing “religion” in Canada and the USA is the growth of self-identifying “religious nones.” They make up almost a quarter of Canadians today. Our government, media and public educational institutions now assume a “no faith” position as their default.

On the other hand, the uni-directional view of history developed from the biographies of many mainline theologians has proven ill-informed. The rumours of the death of religion have been greatly exaggerated. Mormons, Muslims and charismatic Christian institutions have all experienced extensive growth over the last century, and that due to high fertility rates, high retention, conversions and transfer growth – a portion of which come from shrinking mainline churches (Canada’s old Protestant establishment denominations).

In a previous article on the topic of theology and church growth, I focused on a new “Theology Matters” study by Haskell, Flatt, and Burgoyne (CC Jan. 9, 2016) that shows while most mainline congregations are dying, those that are growing hold to the basics of Christian orthodoxy on such things as the divinity and physical resurrection of Christ. Keeping faith – in a way that is welcoming and pays attention to youth – bears fruit in at least one way: it draws people to congregational participation.

Max Weber said one hundred years ago that modernization fosters a rationalizing tendency, a habit of seeing life and the universe emptied of the supernatural and miracles. Only in traditional society, “the world remains a great enchanted garden.” The liberal mainline churches in the study were significantly less likely to pray, less likely to believe in divine punishment, in miracles, in Jesus’ divinity and bodily resurrection and in “real, supernatural power” for Christians. Disenchanted churches lack the inspiration at least some modern people crave. Orthodox theology has a charisma, an enchantment, that draws people out of Canada’s secularized milieu and into congregational life. It’s not a large crowd in terms of the total of the Canadian population, but it’s a stable percentage who want the full-colour panorama of Christian doctrine: God’s love and wrath, sin and punishment, Christ’s atoning sacrifice, Holy Spirit’s power in prayer and scripture, resurrection of the body and life everlasting. And they look for such story and practice in a church.

The rumours of the death of religion have been greatly exaggerated.

Mainline leader’s response
“The findings do agree with other research. What we don’t agree with is that the growth is attributable to one theological perspective,” says David Robinson, director of congregational development for the Anglican Church of Canada.

“What matters is clearly articulated theology, liturgical practice and missiology that is obvious, pursued and taught with excellence and sensitivity,” he says. “That can be conservative, it can be liberal, it can be Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, charismatic. . . . What it can’t be is lukewarm, mushy and insecure.”

Robinson believes it is the clarity of the mission, not theology, that matters. But the authors of the study actually tested this idea in a multivariate analysis, and factored out such a theory. Robinson’s contention also assumes that coincidentally all 13 of the theologically liberal congregations in the study lacked clarity in their mission and purpose while the nine conservative congregations in the study were contrastingly clear. That seems unlikely.

Robinson added a theological conviction to his disagreement with the study: “Besides, God is way too big for any one human construct.”

This seems prudent at first glance. But if that means accommodating mutually contradictory beliefs, such as that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and that he rose only in the hearts of his disciples, or that God is active and alive in the world today and that he is a distant deity who observes us from afar, it becomes incoherent. God scandalously reveals himself in historical particularities, including in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and in theological particularities, such as the fact that Jesus is the only means to full communion with God. Not all theologies are compatible, and not all of them can be true. This means God has chosen to limit himself to being coherent in his nature, meaning multiple theological expressions can often be mutually exclusive. And “exclusive” is not a term mainline churches use. But truth is exclusive – not of people, but of what is untrue.

Churches don’t have to water down their message to remain relevant.

Previous in-house commentary
David Haskell, one of the researchers of the study, considers himself a liberal Christian on many counts. He is not the first to call the mainline back to renewed conviction.

Mainline theologian John Cobb, Jr. in his book Reclaiming The Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do About It (1997) more bluntly frames the besetting problem of the “oldline” churches as one of internal “lukewarmness.” “We inspire no passion,” he explains. “We no longer even call for primary commitment to the gospel that we purport to serve.” Expectations have lowered, missions have suffered and the church needs to return to a passionate conviction regarding “the reality and nature of God.”

Cobb adds that the oldline churches have led the way in institutional repentance regarding historic anti-Judaism, the marginalization of women and the ecological crisis, but few outsiders are drawn to a community in a season of confession of sin. Furthermore, these self-critiques have originated in the academy – from mainline theologians, historically trained in Germany or reading European theologians, who write for their guilds more than they write for the church. Theology became professionalized, argues Cobb, and the issues of the academy rather than the pew dominated the seminaries. The critical spirit of 20th century scholarship was hard to preach, and even harder for the average Christian to practically apply to their daily walk of faith. The seminary professor’s search for intellectual freedom, academic respectability and career advancement – not to mention disengagement from the often complex struggles of congregational life – did not lead to constructive teaching on formulating the faith for a new generation.

It has been demonstrated elsewhere (Hamilton and McKinney 2003) that often liberal-thinking Christians gravitate to denominational positions, while more conservative leaders focus on congregational ministry. This further creates a gap between headquarters and the pews.

Douglas Cowan is a former United Church minister now Religious Studies professor who has studied conservative movements in Canada. Using a framework of religious economics, he explained in a United Church journal in 2000 that religious institutions must offer both tangible rewards for participation and other intangible benefits in order to gain and retain members. In this framework, the United Church has become one of the “least expensive” churches to join with the fewest intangible benefits. He shows denominational documents that basically say church membership’s meaning rests in the privilege of voting on parish matters and maybe getting a position on the board. Membership, including baptism, ultimately makes no theological, let alone salvific difference. The escape from hell and promise of heaven have been exchanged with “a much more broadly inclusive belief in a God who loves everyone equally, Jesus as teacher and friend and a vague assertion of life that continues beyond the grave.” With 65 percent of ministers and 75 percent of lay people in the UCC maintaining Christianity is only one of many routes to salvation, seekers and church youth are left “in the shifting sands of inquiry, uncertain where the boundaries of faith may be drawn.”

Cowan offers a sharp critique of United Churches: he points out that more appealing music can be found in the theatre, more effective social service can be found in anti-poverty groups, and better networking and often ritual can be found in the Rotary Club, the Elks or Masonic Lodge. In sum, a universalist and pluralist church offers no obvious ultimate spiritual benefits and the community benefits are richer in other institutions, so why bother with church on a Sunday morning? Put differently, if theology – as beliefs about the urgent need for faith in Christ for personal and communal flourishing and salvation – does not matter, neither does the church.

Reformed reflections
Reformed churches, which are easily situated on the edges of the mainline landscape, would do well to listen and learn from mainline lessons. The CRCNA, for example, has lost a quarter of its membership in the last 20 years, falling from a height of 315,000 in 1992 to about 235,000 today. Most of those who left would identify on the conservative end of the theological spectrum.

A CRC preacher’s wife in casual conversation agreed with the “Theology Matters” research in principle, but she did not romanticize all conservatism. She saw many of the new conservative Reformed denominations as originating in a spirit of divisiveness, legalism and judgmentalism. Their exit from the CRCNA is regrettable, and the presenting issues such as female leadership and theistic evolution do not directly address the matters of Christian orthodoxy measured by this study (except they may perceive the issues reflect differences about the reliability and trustworthiness of scripture). Still, the research insists that a welcoming, innovative community life must accompany the orthodox convictions of the congregation. We must have the Jesus truth in the Jesus way to get the Jesus life. Can there be a creative, caring theological conservatism that unites both laity and clergy?

Reformed denominations need both deep roots and new branches, and the priests in the pew need to be part of the ecclesiological discernment that takes place. Richard Mouw in Consulting the Faithful (1994) insists that church leaders be charitable towards the impulses of the laity. Although he doesn’t mention the priesthood of all believers, he quotes Cardinal Newman as maintaining that there is a sort of instinct, prudence or practical wisdom “deep in the bosom of the mystical body of Christ” that gifts lay people with moral and theological discernment. This conviction acts as a check on the disdain some trained theologians have for “uneducated” laity, whose more popular tastes, questions and passions may challenge their allegedly more sophisticated sensibilities.

In fact, Mouw champions Abraham Kuyper’s affection for “the little people” who embody the habits of faithful worship and service. The butcher, the baker and the website designer who can act as guardians of the truth in a time of heresy. Kuyper’s own biography reveals this, as Pietje Baltus, an uneducated miller’s daughter, stood up to Kuyper’s liberal preaching and prompted his evangelical conversion. The Spirit-led instincts of the faithful disciple, Kuyper summarized thus: “their unwavering persistence has been a blessing for my heart, the rise of the morning star in my life.” There may be a sanctified obstinacy that fosters a long obedience in the same direction.
Not really fully “Conservative”
Barry Parker is the priest at one of the growing orthodox Anglican parishes in the study (St. Paul’s, Toronto), and he wrestles with the connotations of the word “conservative.” One of his parishioners said to him, somewhat surprised, “I didn’t know we were ‘conservative.’”

“The term carries too much baggage,” said Parker. “We don’t like setting up dichotomies, and we want to avoid stereotypes that come from the U.S. We are not people searching for certainty, or people who are divisive, thinking we’re better. We make mistakes. We just are who we are, and we say we are ‘theologically conservative and missionally liberal.’ We hold to the historical faith of the Anglican church. We prioritize discipleship. Everything, including community outreach, flows out of that. Really, everything but the gospel is on the table.”

Andrew Allison is the minister at Leaskdale Presbyterian Church (also called St. Paul’s) – another one of the conservative growing congregations that were part of the study. He champions a strong emphasis on ministry to outsiders: “We shape worship so it’s accessible. My wiring is directed at the unchurched, not Faithful Joe. We eliminate insider language in our worship; it’s a space for people to ask questions. There is a significant unchurched crowd in the church, although there is a mix of former Catholics, Orthodox, United and Baptist, too. But some people don’t know what Easter is about, besides the bunnies. Some don’t even know Jesus’ name.”

Leaskdale ministries are quite varied. They have recently sponsored refugees, including some Muslims. They have had a community garden and they have grown and harvested food on their large lot for “the world’s hungriest bellies” (through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank). They have small groups like Divorce Care and sponsored relief work in Haiti. Conservative theology does not mean there is any less emphasis on ministry.

Stand firm in the faith
This research has had wide media exposure, and the responses I’ve heard from conservative friends are predictable: “Of course!” The response from more liberal friends has been more varied. Some seemed to be in complete denial that theology has anything to do with flourishing. Others explained conservative growth by dismissing it as “tribalism” or “fear of the outside world” or a quest for certainty and refusal to “live the questions.”

Another friend turned the tables even more radically. The dying mainline was in fact a sign of life. “What is dying is an old institutional expression of Christianity. In this sense, the mainlines are on the forefront of the changing forms of Christian faith as they give rise to a new kind of Christianity.”

This could possibly be true, and I hope it is. We Reformed Protestants, too, are part mainline. But it’s hard to see 50 years of declension as a sign of new life. The United Church closes one church every week and theologically they continue to broaden rather than press the reset button. Numbers are not the only measure of the Spirit, but they can be one sign of its fruit. The fruit of the Spirit includes faithfulness – which includes establishing theological boundaries as well as theological renewal.

It also includes many other virtues, and humility would be a good way to summarize them. This small research project, while reinforcing decades of similar findings, is not an occasion for self-satisfaction in conservative camps. We all live by grace. National research on evangelical churches (Reimer and Wilkinson, 2015) shows that evangelical congregations are not the vibrant institutions they once were. They are not stagnating, but statistically across Canada they are not thriving and growing either, and to a large degree this is indicative of Canadian religious life in the 21st century.

Researcher Kevin Flatt summarizes the significance of the “Theology Matters” study: it validates deep orthodox convictions while encouraging innovation. “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 explains on a Redeemer University College blog. “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.”


  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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