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?
Interestingly, these traditional beliefs were not tied to traditional modes of worship. Services at growing churches featured contemporary worship with drums and guitars, while declining churches tended toward traditional worship styles involving an organ and a choir. Haskell argued that growing churches’ emphasis on the gospel leads them to be willing to innovate when it comes to musical worship.
“Conservative believers, relying on a fairly literal interpretation of scripture, are ‘sure’ that those who are not converted to Christianity will miss their chance for eternal life,” Haskell told The Guardian. “Because they are profoundly convinced of [the] life-saving, life-altering benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church.”
Perhaps ironically, this emphasis on “conservative” beliefs has led churches to adopt more modern worship styles. “This desire to reach others also makes conservative Protestants willing to implement innovative measures including changes to the style and content of their worship services,” Haskell explained.
Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible prove to be more unified on priorities and morality as well. “That also makes them more confident and, to those on the outside looking in, confidence is persuasive all on its own,” Haskell added. “Confidence mixed with a message that’s uplifting, reassuring or basically positive is an attractive combination.”
While the findings of the study are remarkably clear, Haskell suggested they were likely to be controversial. “If you’re in a mainline church and that church is dying, and you’ve just heard that the theological position that you have is likely what’s killing it, you’re not going to be very happy about that. Theological orientation cuts to the very core of the religious practitioner.”
On another note, the study found that two-thirds of congregations at growing churches were under the age of 60, while two-thirds of those at shrinking churches were over 60.
Next Page: Why using the term “conservative” to describe these churches might be misleading.
The relative youth and modern musical dynamics suggest that using the term “conservative” for the Bible-centered theology at these churches might be misleading. The term also carries political connotations which need not be linked to a literal interpretation of the Bible. While huge portions of evangelical Protestants in the United States voted for Donald Trump, this study focused on beliefs and church practices (in Canada), rather than on political orientation.
While the “liberal” theology of many mainline churches dates to a more recent origin and often accommodates many ideas considered contrary to orthodox Christianity, some might argue that the “liberal” versus “conservative” terminology in theology is misleading. The key beliefs here involve the literal interpretation of scripture — most especially the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and the importance of converting others.
These are universal orthodox Christian beliefs. They are the kernel of the Christian faith, the reasons to be a Christian and not something else, and while some may consider them “conservative,” the thing they conserve is nothing more or less than the “Mere Christianity” presented so effectively by C.S. Lewis.
This study did not involve “conservative” versus “liberal” issues like church positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, or Darwinism, but rather on pivotal beliefs that make up orthodox Christianity. While many who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible also subscribe to young earth creation, the sinfulness of homosexual practice, and the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, even these issues are less important than the resurrection of Jesus or God’s power to do miracles.
In fact, one might ask, “If Christians who believe that God can do miracles and that Jesus bodily rose from the dead are to be considered conservative, what sort of Christians would be called liberal, and in what sense are they even Christian at all?”
The results of this study are clear. Churches which champion the literal truth of the Bible on the key issues at the center of the Christian faith are growing, while those which do not — even if they remain true to traditional modes of worship — are shrinking. This is good news for orthodox Christians, and whether they consider themselves conservative or liberal, they are important for churches to consider as they move forward.