The Times-Tribune

Many silent nights for liberal churches


GUEST COLUMNIST In addition to shopping for the perfect gift, some advanced planners will check when their church holds its Christmas service. While they might not go regularly, for many those Christmas carols at church are a holiday tradition. Sadly, if their church is mainline Protestant, they may be surprised to find it has closed.

The numerical decline of mainline Protestant­ism is accelerati­ng. The largest mainline Protestant denominati­ons are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelica­l Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyteri­an Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church. Membership decreases by about 1 million a year, resulting in hundreds of closures.

Whereas most mainline Protestant churches are declining, there is no consensus as to why. Hoping to solve this sociologic­al riddle, some colleagues and I conducted a study. We tracked down an elusive sample of growing mainline congregati­ons and compared them to a sample of declining congregati­ons. We surveyed more than 2,200 congregant­s, half growing and half declining, and clergy who serve them.

We found the clergy and congregant­s of the growing churches held to traditiona­l Christian beliefs — such as that Jesus rose physically from the grave. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologica­lly conservati­ve and the declining church clergy the least.

When we used statistica­l analysis to determine which factors influence growth, conservati­ve Protestant theology was a significan­t predictor. Conversely, the analysis showed liberal theology leads to decline. Past studies have suggested theology and church growth are not linked. They are.

Our study is not alone. For example, “The Faith Communitie­s Today Study” analyzed data from thousands of congregati­ons. That study found, by far, growing churches had clergy and congregant­s who were theologica­l conservati­ves. That study made no link between theology and growth but as we point out, it didn’t fully explore the issue. It asked just one question of the church pastor to gauge theologica­l outlook of an entire congregati­on. We surveyed all the congregant­s and the clergy in each church and asked many theologica­l questions.

It’s also commonly asserted by our liberal critics that it is not the type of theology that matters for church growth but whether the theology is believed strongly and articulate­d clearly. We would suggest that different conviction­s produce different outcomes.

For example, all the growing church clergy in our study held the conviction that it is “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians.” As theologica­l conservati­ves, these pastors believe that they must “Go and make disciples everywhere.”

Conversely, half the clergy at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians. These pastors believe there are many paths to salvation and that it’s culturally insensitiv­e to peddle your beliefs on those outside your religious community. Comparing the two outlooks, which do you think is more likely to generate church growth?

As social scientists, my colleagues and I do not advocate the theologica­l rightness of one doctrinal position over another. But, talking solely about church growth, conservati­ve Protestant doctrine is the winner. With a nod to the season, mainline clergy and congregant­s with conservati­ve outlook are more apt to be singing “Silent Night”; theologica­l liberals risk a different kind of silent night.

 ??  ?? HASKELL David Millard Haskell is associate professor of religion, culture and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada. He wrote this for InsideSour­ces. com.
HASKELL David Millard Haskell is associate professor of religion, culture and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada. He wrote this for InsideSour­ces. com.

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