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.