New Study: 'Conservative' Churches with a Literal Interpretation of the Bible Are Growing

A five-year study of growing and shrinking churches in Canada revealed that theology is critical for church survival, and even for attracting younger people. Beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, the importance of converting people to Christianity, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are strongest in growing churches, and weakest in churches on the decline.

"If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner," David Haskell, lead researcher in the study "Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy," told Britain's The Guardian. This declaration is powerful, but the numbers are even more striking.

A whopping 93 percent of clergy and 83 percent of worshippers at growing churches agreed with the statement, "Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb." In shrinking churches, only 67 percent of worshippers and 56 percent of clergy agreed with this statement.

This finding echoes Saint Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians 15:14: "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." This statement seems to contradict many allegorical interpretations of the resurrection of Christ in vogue among "liberal" Christians.

But the study goes even further in providing evidence that "conservative" beliefs about the literal interpretation of scripture correlate with growing churches. In declining churches, only about 50 percent of clergy agreed that it was "very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians," while one hundred percent of clergy in growing churches agreed with this statement.

A full 71 percent of clergy in growing churches read the Bible daily, compared with just 26 percent of clergy from declining churches. This trend is the same among worshippers: 46 percent of those attending growing churches said they read the Bible once a week, while only 26 percent who attend declining churches reported reading scripture that often.

A full 100 percent of clergy at growing churches (and 90 percent of worshippers there) said that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers." In contrast, only 44 percent of clergy at declining churches agreed. In a fascinating twist, almost twice as many congregants (80 percent) of pastors at declining churches believed in God's ability to answer prayers with miracles.

These findings come from a large sample of mainline Christians in Ontario, Canada. The study surveyed 2,225 churchgoers, along with 29 clergy and 195 official congregants.

At a common-sense level, these correlations make sense. If Jesus literally rose from the dead, if it is important to convert non-Christians, and if God has the ability to answer prayers, attending church would have more spiritual value. If you believe that heaven exists, that Jesus's death and resurrection allow Christians to go there, and that the only thing required to save someone from eternal torment is to convince them to believe in Jesus, you will find more motivation to go to church and to bring others with you.

And if clergy and congregations read the Bible less, they would likely be less committed to spreading the truths revealed by holy scripture.

Haskell told The Guardian that growing churches "held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading."

Next Page: But what sort of worship style do growing churches have?