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Conservative Protestantism and church growth go together, says Canadian researcher

02 December 2016


Band aid: the Canadian researchers concluded that contemporary worship music had a "significant positive effect on growth"

Band aid: the Canadian researchers concluded that contemporary worship music had a "significant positive effect on growth"

CANADIAN academics have concluded, in contrast with research published by the Archbishops’ Council, that theological differences matter for church growth.

After studying growing and declining churches in Canada, researchers, led by Dr David Millard Haskell, of Wilfrid Laurier University, determined that the conservative theological beliefs of clergy and members of congregations were a “significant predictor of church growth”. “Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” Dr Haskell said. “But, 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.”

British academics, including the author of the Archbishops’ Council report, have challenged the conclusion.

The study — Theology Matters: Comparing the traits of growing and declining mainline Protestant church attendees and clergy — is to be published in the December issue of Review of Religious Research. Dr Haskell and his team studied 22 “mainline” Protestant churches (Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United) in southern Ontario. Of these, 13 were declining, and nine were growing. This was not a random sample: growing churches were a “challenge” to find. Both clergy (29) and members of their congregatinos (2255) completed surveys. Growing and declining churches were similar in their ethnic make-up, but declining churches had older congregations, on average.

Even when other variables were controlled for, the theological conservatism of both those attending and the clergy still remained “important factors in predicting church growth”. For example, 83 per cent of congregation members and 92 per cent of clergy in growing churches expressed belief in the physical resurrection of Christ, compared with 67 per cent and 56 per cent respectively in declining churches. In addition, 78 per cent of the congregation members and 100 per cent of the clergy in growing churches agreed that it was very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians, compared with 56 per cent and 50 per cent in shrinking churches.

The survey also found that 46 per cent of the growing-church worshippers read their Bibles once a week or more, compared with 26 per cent for declining churches. The figures for daily Bible-reading among clergy were 71 per cent and 19 per cent respectively. Growing churches were also “significantly more likely to emphasise youth programmes and employ contemporary worship styles”.

Research conducted for the Church of England’s Church Growth Programme, published in From Anecdote to Evidence, concluded: “Style of worship, and where a church places itself in terms of its theological tradition, appear to have no significant link with growth so long as there is consistency and clarity, and the chosen style and tradition are wholeheartedly adopted” (News, 31 January 2014).

Dr Haskell has highlighted that his study asked members of congregations as well as clergy to fill in a detailed survey, while that conducted for the C of E report simply asked clergy to place themselves along three theological scales.

Professor David Voas, of the University of London, who led the data analysis published in From Anecdote to Evidence, said that his study had found a “modest association between worship style, theological orientation, and growth”, but that this had disappeared once other variables were taken into account.

It was “intentionality” that mattered, he suggested: “Churches that offer the same old, same old tend to be struggling. Very traditional or very liberal churches can do well, if they have reflected on their mission and embraced it. What’s particularly distinctive about sectarians, including conservative Evangelicals (and it’s an observation that’s been made for centuries), is their enthusiasm.”

He cautioned against interpreting findings in a “superficial way”, and suggested that, rather than result in religious revival, an overnight embracing of conservative theology was more likely to produce “a collapse in total attendance. . . Of course, Pentecostal and conservative Evangelical pastors have an important constituency, but there’s no evidence that they have broad appeal to Christians, let alone the entire population, in England.”

Professor Linda Woodhead, of the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, was critical of the Canadian study, pointing to the “tiny selection of churches, which is not even a random sample”. From Anecdote to Evidence was “far more robust”, having involved 1700 churches.

She pointed to a 1972 study, Why Conservative Churches are Growing, by Dean Kelley, who thought, she said, that “what mattered was that church leaders had real conviction about what they preached, that their message was not at odds with what the congregation believed, and that it had spiritual depth and seriousness and wasn’t just watered-down politics. There’s no reason to think these things don’t still pertain, but they are not exclusive to any one kind of churchmanship.”

Dr Haskell defended his findings. “Different convictions, though equally strong, will have different outcomes,” he said. “The convictions of the first [growing churches] predispose them to aggressive outreach and thus growth; the convictions of the second, though equally strong, predispose them to stasis and thus decline.”  There was “strong statistical evidence” to support this thesis, he said: “When growing churches are identified in research, they are almost always conservative.” Clear mission was “not a root cause”, but was a working out of conservative doctrine. He has also suggested that conservative Protestant theology produced “unity of purpose” through reliance on the Bible, and that the insistence on a God who was “active, loving, and close” resulted in “personal happiness”.

The Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, said that the Canadian report was a challenge to the argument that “the health and growth of the Church of England depends upon remaining ‘relevant’ by catching up with trends in wider society.” A “more liberal agenda on sexuality” would mean that hope for growth would be “entirely misplaced”. He pointed to numerical decline in the Episcopal Church in the United States.

The director of Reform, Susie Leafe, quoted statistics that suggested that churches in the Reform or ReNew network were growing by three to four per cent per year, and were, on average, larger and with a younger attendance than the C of E average.

A tutor at Wycliffe Hall, the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, said that the Canadian findings came as “no surprise”, but it was “always a dangerous game to celebrate numerical growth as proof of God’s blessing upon our ministries — whether we’re conservatives or liberals. It’s easy to attract a crowd by preaching a message [that] people want to hear. Faithful biblical ministry is not a popularity contest.”

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