Saturday, December 31, 2016

What Role Does Theology Play in Church Growth or Decline? Maybe Not As Much as is Thought

In my previous column, I presented the findings of research that explored the link between theology and the growth or decline of mainline churches.

The research, which surveyed nine growing and 13 declining Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Ontario, suggested that the more theologically conservative a church is, the more likely it is to be growing.

But is the connection between theology and growth really that simple?

I decided to ask a few people with a keen interest in the health of the church in Canada today.

All agreed that theology plays a role, but it isn’t the only factor—or maybe even the best one.

For Joel Thiessen, a professor at Ambrose University College in Calgary, and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, “there might be correlations between theology and growth, but not causation.

“It's hard to know which is the cause and which is the effect—is theology drawing people in or are people in the pews causing the theology to shift?”
Thiessen also isn’t convinced theology is the only thing at work here.

“There is also something about the value of leadership, and relevant preaching and good music and worship,” he adds.
For James Christie, Chair of the Master of Divinity Programme at the United Centre for Theological Studies, and a United Church member, the research is too simple.

“It reduces immensely complex and multi-faceted questions to simplistic questions,” he says.

He also questions the definitions the researchers used to determine who is conservative and who is liberal, suggesting it is a “caricature” that compares “a faithful conservative church theology to an apostate liberalism.”

The researchers also don’t seem to understand that mainline churches have never been in the church growth business, he adds.

“They were church sowing and scattering denominations, building churches where their members were moving in the 1960s,” he says.

The result is that today “some places in Canada are over-subscribed with mainline churches,” and the closing of churches is a natural response to changing demographics.

He also wonders if “sheer numbers” are the best way to decide “faithfulness to the Gospel.”
For Reg Bibby, one of Canada’s foremost researchers on religion, the decline in mainline church membership is mostly about changing immigration patterns and inability to retain their youth.

According to the University of Lethbridge professor, a more significant reason for mainline church decline is a decrease in the number of people immigrating to Canada from Europe and Great Britain—their traditional source of new members.

“The primary reason for their numerical decline has been a combination of their inability to hold on to their children and the dramatic decrease in their immigration pipelines,” he says.

Theology's role in this “has been minor,” he adds. “Simply put, there have not been enough newcomers from outside Canada to replace those who are dying.”

Then there’s the matter of where the growth is coming from. That’s the question I posed to David Haskell, one of the study’s researchers.

Haskell confirmed that most newcomers to the growing mainline churches they surveyed had come from other churches.

“Most often, they were pulling from other mainline Protestant churches near them, but they also pulled, to a lesser extent, from conservative Protestant—evangelical—churches too,” he says.

According to the study, about 12 percent of the newcomers claimed no previous religious affiliation, he says—a figure consistent with findings that go back to the 1970s showing about nine out of ten new people in churches came from other congregations.

In 1997, Don Posterski and Gary Nelson published a book titled Future Faith Churches. Based on a survey of 14 growing churches from eight denominations from mainline to evangelical, they came up with a model for “leading edge” churches in the 21st century.

The main marks of the 14 healthy churches they surveyed were: Communities of grace—high on acceptance and low on judgement; high on the positive and low on the negative—an emphasis on good news of forgiveness; communities of compassion—accepting incompleteness and woundedness; and communities of Christian conviction—orthodox in their doctrine.

According to the authors, these churches were high on “soul care and social care.”

In other words, there are many reasons why a church grows or declines. Theology is one of them.

But it is not the only one.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Why December 25 was Chosen as the Date of Christ's Birth

Back in the late 1980s, I caused a near-uprising in an adult Sunday school class when I said that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25.

It seemed the most obvious and innocuous thing to me. After all, the Bible doesn’t mention a date. If anything, Jesus’ birth would have been closer to springtime, since the book of Luke indicates that shepherds were in the fields with their flocks—an activity which would not occur in winter.

But many class members didn’t see it that way. One woman, in particular, was incensed. I can still remember her angry eyes as she accused me of undermining her faith.

Looking back, I can only imagine how much angrier she would have been if I had told her the earliest Christians didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth at all.

I learned more about this while talking to Winnipegger Gerry Bowler, author of two books about Christmas—The World Encyclopedia of Christmas and the recently-published Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday.

The earliest Christians, he told me, didn’t celebrate Christmas because birthday celebrations were associated with Roman religions. “That was the kind of thing that pagans did,” he said.

It wasn’t until the fourth century that Christmas was recognized by the early church—and not because people wanted a day off and gifts. Instead, it was prompted by a theological dispute about the nature of Christ.

Some Christians, called Gnostics, believed that Christ did not have a real or natural body during his life on earth. One way the church could combat this idea was by emphasizing the birth of Christ.

A great way to do that was by celebrating his birthday.

But that created a new problem; when was his birthday? Nobody knew.

Ultimately, December 25 was chosen. But why that date?

There are at least three theories. The most popular is that early Christians co-opted the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a solstice celebration that occurred in late December and featured gifts, decorating trees and feasts.

By infusing pagan symbols with Christian meaning, the early church would have had an easier time promoting the faith—and dealing with a festival that might have been hard to extinguish by other means.

Another theory is that they co-opted the feast of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), which occurred on December 25. After all, what could be more powerful than the sun than Jesus, the son of God?

But Bowler thinks there’s another reason for the date.

In the ancient world, he told me, people believed great men died and were conceived on the same date.

Since early Christians concluded Jesus was killed on March 25, it meant he was born nine months after that date—on December 25.

Connecting the conception and death of Jesus in this way sounds odd today. But as Andrew McGowan notes in his article in Bible History Daily titled “How December 25 Became Christmas,” “it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together.”

The date of Christmas “may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies,” he adds.

For Bowler, there is better evidence for this way of deciding Christ’s birth date than for the other theories. And “if that’s what the early church decided, it’s good enough for me,” he says. 

Over the centuries, the church has had an off-and-on relationship with Christmas. The Puritans in England and America and the Presbyterians in Scotland banned it in the 17th century, arguing it had no scriptural basis.

Whether it was a way to co-opt pagan celebrations, or an ancient belief connecting conception and death, today Christmas is universally celebrated by almost all Christians.

(Although Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar celebrate it on January 6.) 

These days, it seems the co-opting has gone the other way around, with the secular world taking over what was once an explicit religious event.

But Bowler doesn’t mind. Even when the religious elements of Christmas are avoided or suppressed, “the magic of the story of the nativity leaks out,” he says. 

And despite the secularization of Christmas, it is still a time when “Christians can be most public,” he adds.

“The Christian message may be castigated the rest of the year, but on Christmas it can be heard.”

Even if December 25 isn’t Christ’s actual birthday. 

From the December 24, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Giving Up On Christmas: The War is Over and the Church Lost

Tired of Christmas yet? All those commercials, movies, and sales, sales, sales! I felt that way a few years ago when I wrote this column.

It's that time of year again. It’s time for Christmas trees, decorations, carols, stockings, presents, eggnog—and for Facebook news feeds filling up with messages complaining about how society today has taken Christ out of Christmas.

I don't know about you, but I've grown weary of all those posts about the war on Christmas, and how Christians need to take it back.

The truth is this: The war for Christmas is lost.

Maybe the church did own Christmas at one time, but that’s no longer the case. It now belongs to shopping and seasonal sentimentality.

So maybe it’s time to admit defeat and move on.

That was the view of columnist Digby Anderson in the Spectator in 2003.

"Good generals know when it is time to give up an impossible defence and seek a more secure position to hold,” he wrote.

“It is time to give up Christmas . . . we should realize that the cause is lost, at least on this day. The 25th is no longer ours."

So maybe the church lost Christmas. But Christians still have Advent—right? At least that religious observance still belongs to the faithful.

Maybe not.

For Christians, the Advent time of waiting for the birth of the Christ child is also going the way of commercialism.

I'm not talking about the simple calendars so many families have used for decades as a low-key way to help children count down to the big day—the ones with little doors and chocolates inside.

Things have gone way past that now.

How about a beer Advent calendar? That's right: Twenty-four beers you can drink, one each day, until Christmas.

If beer's not your thing, you can buy Advent calendars that use tea, cosmetics, rum, vodka, tequila, gin, whiskey and coffee to count down to Christmas Day.

And if your kids are tired of chocolate calendars, you can buy them the Lego Star Wars Advent calendar.

Says the advertising copy: "Open up a door each December day to reveal a fun Star Wars gift, including characters, vehicles, starships and more. Unfold the playmat and battle with your collection on Hoth, Tatooine, Naboo and in space.”

Hmmm . . . maybe it’s just me, but I don’t recall anything about battles and war being associated with Advent.

In other words, it's not just the war on Christmas that's lost. The battle for Advent—which you might not have even realized was going on—is pretty much over, too.

So maybe it’s time to heed Anderson’s words and just move on. Let Christmas go. Let the world have it.

But I think I want to keep Advent. At least, until the first Advent holiday movie comes out.

Then it might be time to let it go, too.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

For Growing or Declining Churches, Do Beliefs Matter? Researchers Say Yes

Mainline churches in Canada are dying. Since 1960, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians and the United Church have lost half their members. The United Church closes one church a week, on average.

But a few mainline congregations are thriving and growing. Why is that?

That was the question three Canadian academics—David Millard Haskell and Stephanie Burgoyne of Wilfrid Laurier University and Kevin Flatt of Redeemer University College—set out to answer. 

In their research paper, titled “Theology Matters: Comparing the traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” they discovered that when it comes to whether a mainline church is growing or declining, what people—and especially what clergy—believe matters.

“We hypothesized that beliefs play a role” in whether a church grows or declines, Flatt told me. “Our research showed that was the case.”

Through the research, which surveyed clergy and congregants from nine growing and 13 declining Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Ontario, the researchers found that the more theologically conservative a church is, the more likely it is to be growing.

Conversely, the more liberal theologically it is, the more likely it is to be declining. 

At growing churches, for example, 93 percent of pastors and 83 percent of congregants agreed with the statement: “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.” At declining churches, only 56 percent of clergy and 67 percent of congregants believed that to be true. 

When asked if “God performs miracles in answer to prayer,” 100 percent of clergy and 90 percent of congregants at growing churches agreed, compared to 44 percent of clergy and 80 percent of congregants at declining churches. 

When it comes to evangelism, 100 percent of pastors and 78 percent of congregants at growing churches agreed “it is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians.” Just 50 percent of pastors and 56 percent of congregants of declining churches felt that way. 

When asked to describe the purpose or mission of their church, people at growing churches most often spoke of evangelism and sharing their faith. Those in declining churches named social justice activities as the main purpose, without reference to religious motivation or outcomes. 

Another item of interest from the survey is Bible reading; 71 percent of clergy in growing churches read the Bible daily, compared to 19 percent at declining churches.

Worship style is another interesting factor. The survey found that growing mainline churches featured contemporary worship with drums and guitar in at least one of their Sunday services, while declining churches most often used a traditional worship style featuring organ and choir.

What does it all add up to? In a press release, researcher David Millard Haskell put it this way: “If we are talking 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.”

As for the link between the clergy and growing or declining churches, Flatt added it could be because congregations mirror their clergy over time, or because clergy pull people over to their positions. Either way, he stated, “leadership plays a key role.”

The research suggests a way forward for the struggling mainline denominations, although it might be hard for some to accept. And Flatt doesn’t want to minimize the challenge facing those groups.

“I don’t want to overstate how many growing mainline churches there are,” he said, noting it was hard to find nine growing mainline churches to study—even in the most populated and church-rich part of Canada.

“It took a lot of looking,” he said. “The reality is that the four major mainline denominations are in decline.”

While reading about the research, which will be published in the journal Review of Religious Research in December, I had to think about the controversy raised by Gretta Vosper, the self-described atheist United Church pastor.

In September, a review committee in that denomination recommended that she is “not suitable” to continue in her role because she doesn’t believe in God.

If the United Church needs another reason for why it should part ways with Vosper, who downplays traditional Christian beliefs in favour of a more humanistic approach, the research is pretty clear.

As Flatt noted, “churches that want to go that route will tend not to be growing churches.”

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Evangelicals and the U.S. Presidential Election: “Donald Trump kissed up to the old religious right and reaped the reward.”

One thing about the recent U.S. presidential election: Nobody can say religion didn’t matter.

By now the story is very familiar; 81 percent of white evangelicals supported President-elect Donald Trump; Hillary Clinton only attracted 16 percent—an important factor since members of this group make up 26 percent of the American electorate.

A slim majority of Catholics (52 percent) also supported Trump, versus 45 percent for Clinton. Seven in ten American Jews, meanwhile, voted Democratic.

Why did so many evangelicals vote for Trump? Well, for one thing, he actively courted them.

Unnoticed by the mainstream media, 
Trump utilized Christian TV, radio and 
online to reach evangelical voters.

According to Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “he [Trump] went after them unapologetically, did faith-based media, and made an ironclad pledge on judges.”

Unnoticed by the mainstream media, he utilized Christian TV, radio and online to reach evangelical voters.

These methods, says Reed, were more important than the Democrats vaunted “ground game.”

Then there was his commitment to being anti-abortion and appointing a conservative Supreme Court judge who might sway the court to overturn Roe Vs. Wade—something important for many Catholics as well.

Something that didn’t get much attention was Trump’s promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations—like churches—from
lobbying or campaigning on behalf of politicians.

If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, pastors will be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they’re currently not allowed to do, and also be more active in financially supporting candidates.

Meantime, Christianity Today observed that the Clinton campaign largely ignored reaching out to evangelicals. And who could blame her? The U.S. seems to be getting more secular all the time, and non-religious people seem to vote Democrat.

Exit polls show that the unaffiliated voted 68 percent for Clinton compared to 26 percent for Trump.

But one thing the Democrats seemed to forget was that religious people tend to be very inclined to vote. This turned out to be a significant factor in this election.

But that’s all behind us now; what will the election mean for Christianity in the U.S. in the future?

                                                                        While a majority of evangelicals voted 
                                                                                   for Trump, many others did not.

The first thing to note is that while a majority of evangelicals voted for Trump, many others did not. They were appalled by his behavior, values and positions on various issues, often noting his misogynistic and xenophobic statements.

These were people like well-known evangelical author and speaker Beth Moore, who tweeted after Trump’s comments about groping women: “Trying to absorb how acceptable the objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

Added Jim Wallis of Sojourners: “Most white evangelicals don’t seem to mind they sold their souls to a man who embodies the most sinful and shameful worship of money, sex and power . . . we have never witnessed such religious hypocrisy as we have seen in this election.”

Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, promised that he will “challenge President Trump whenever he promotes policies that neglect the poor and favor the rich, disrespect women, neglect racial and religious minorities, and fail to protect the environment.”

As for those who voted for Trump, the big question now is how Christians in that country will be perceived by non-churchgoers following the election.

This was an issue addressed by many, including Thabiti Anyabwile, an African-American Baptist pastor in Washington, D.C.

According to Anyabwile, white Christian support for Trump has created four problems.

First, he says, “they have surrendered any claims to the moral high ground.” Second, they have “abandoned public solidarity” with groups who considerTrump a threat.

Third, they have become inextricably linked to a single political party. And fourth, they have endangered their witness and mission.

The evangelical vote for Trump “creates 
or amplifies a credibility problem.”

Having watched evangelicals and other churchgoers moralize in public for a long time about the sins of others, their vote for Trump “creates or amplifies a credibility problem,” he added, asking why anyone should “listen to their gospel when it seems so evident they’ve not applied that gospel to their political choices.”

This was echoed by Phil Vischer, creator of the popular Veggie Tales cartoon series.

“Church, we’ve got some explaining to do,” he wrote. “How do I share the love of Jesus with a brown-skinned neighbor if I’m supporting their deportation? 

"How do I share the love of Jesus with a refugee family if my fear prevents me from offering them help in the first place? 

"And how do I carry the love of Jesus to ANY of the world’s brown and black-skinned people if I’m enthusiastically supporting a man who deals in stereotypes?”

They have good reason to worry. 

According to Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, the rise in the number of people in the U.S. who claim no religion is due, in part, to their “unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided religion is not for them.”

But maybe the last word can go to Mark Silk, Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. “Donald Trump kissed up to the old religious right an reaped the reward.” 

And now we wait to see what happens next.

From the Nov. 19, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Canadian Church Connection to Mel Gibson's New Movie, Hacksaw Ridge

People who see Mel Gibson’s new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, might be surprised to learn that not only Mennonites were opposed to that war. They would be surprised to learn that the movie would never have been made if not for the dogged determination of a Canadian—my friend Stan Jensen.

When it comes to conscientious objection in Canada, Mennonites tend to get the most attention. 

With over 60% of the 10,700 men who did alternative service during the war coming from Mennonite churches, that's to be expected. 

But the ranks of those who did alternative service to being in the military during that war included Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers—groups that also teach against participation in war—together with men from many other denominations.

Unlike those conscientious objectors who served at lumber camps, building roads, or working in mental health facilities, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss, chose a different route. He decided to join the military as a medic.

As he put it in an interview, he was not a conscientious objector but a “conscientious collaborator,” believing that America’s involvement in that war was right and just. He just refused to kill.

Shipped to the Pacific theatre, Doss saved the lives of 75 wounded comrades during the fierce and bloody battle of Okinawa, winning the Congressional Medal of Honour—America’s highest military medal for valour.

It’s an amazing tale of courage, both on the battlefield and in basic training. The movie is the story of how someone could stay true to his conscience, despite being scorned and bullied by the same soldiers whose lives he later saved.

But Doss’ story would never have become a major Hollywood movie if not for Stan Jensen, 63, Communications Director for the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Canada.

In 1974, Jensen read a book about Doss titled The Unlikeliest Hero, published in 1967. “I developed a passion to see it told more broadly,” he says.

In 1996, he left Canada and moved to Los Angeles to manage a bookstore. He hoped being closer to Hollywood would help him meet someone who could turn Doss’ story into a movie.

And that’s exactly what happened. During a special event at his store, one of the attendees was Gregory Crosby, a well-connected screenwriter in the movie industry.

At the time, Crosby was working on a TV series about Medal of Honour recipients.

“I told him, I have the perfect story for you,” says Jensen, who gave him a copy of The Unlikeliest Hero.

After reading it, Crosby was so moved by Doss’ story that agreed to try to make it into a Hollywood movie.

“I never really had the desire to produce anything until Stan Jensen brought me the amazing story,” he said in an interview. “I knew right away I wanted to be involved with the project from beginning to end.”

But before that could happen, they first needed to convince Doss—he didn’t go to movies, and didn’t like Hollywood.

“He was afraid that if they made a movie about his life, they’d change his character, Jensen says—that a movie would show him smoking, drinking and chasing women. “He didn’t want to risk that.”

When Jensen and Crosby assured him that wouldn’t happen, Doss gave his permission.

“You can just imagine how I felt that day,” Jensen says.

It took many more years of discussions and negotiations before Mel Gibson signed on as a director in 2014. The movie was released in November in Canada.

For Jensen, seeing Doss’ story on the big screen is the fulfillment of a dream that goes back over 40 years. He hopes many people will go see it and also be inspired—just as he was when he first encountered it so long ago.

“In this day, when the hero of so many movies is the person who kills the most people, Hacksaw Ridge shows that someone can be a hero by saving lives,” he says.

And what does he think Doss—who died in 2006—would think of Hacksaw Ridge?

“It’s truly a stellar movie,” he says. “I think he would be pleased with how his story has been told.”

From the Nov. 12, Winnipeg Free Press.