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.