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.”