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.

1 comment:

  1. Very good observations I have often wondered why some are growing but others not and then again if these people are sifting in from other worship groups then my question is are the present worship centers growing or just filling the empty seats . Then to look at those in small numbers how is it that they are looked at as a loss bit a advantage to the real church growth building the workers for the final harvest (just a thought)