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Commentary: What makes a Protestant congregation grow?

By David Millard Haskell The music in the malls shows we've hit the holiday season, and Christmas preparations are well underway. In addition to shopping for the perfect gift, some advanced planners will be checking when their neighborhood church is holding its annual Christmas s

By David Millard Haskell

The music in the malls shows we've hit the holiday season, and Christmas preparations are well underway. In addition to shopping for the perfect gift, some advanced planners will be checking when their neighborhood church is holding its annual Christmas service. While they might not go regularly, for many those Christmas carols at church are a holiday tradition, so they want to squeeze it in. Sadly, if their neighborhood church is mainline Protestant, they may be surprised to find it's closed.

Across the English-speaking world the numerical decline of mainline Protestantism is accelerating. The largest mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Episcopal Church. Collectively, membership in these denominations decreases about one million a year, resulting in hundreds of church closures annually.

While most mainline Protestant churches are declining, there has been no consensus about why. Hoping to solve this sociological riddle, some colleagues and I conducted a study. Our finished research appeared this month in peer-reviewed journals and the highlights are being reported by the media.

To get to our findings we tracked down an elusive sample of growing mainline congregations and compared them with a sample of declining congregations. We surveyed more than 2,200 of the congregants, half from growing congregations and half from declining, and the clergy who serve them.

We found, without exception, that the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs - such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. 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 are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal take on the Bible, was a significant predictor. Conversely, the analysis showed liberal theology, with its metaphorical reading of scripture, leads to decline. Our research stands out because past studies have suggested theology and church growth are not linked. They are.

As you might imagine, our results have been well-received by theological conservatives. Liberal Christians have been a lot less satisfied.

Some tell us that liberal mainline Protestant churches do grow and they know this because they've seen it. But this is anecdotal fallacy. A single unverified case can't be used to contradict strong statistical evidence.

In terms of such evidence, we point out our study is not alone in concluding that churches with conservative doctrine grow. For example, the "Faith Communities Today Study" analyzed data from thousands of congregations across the United States. That study found decisively that growing churches had clergy and congregants who were theological conservatives.

Unlike our research, that study made no link between theology and growth, but as we point out in our academic work, it did not fully explore the issue. It asked just one question of one person, the church pastor, to gauge the theological outlook of an entire congregation. We surveyed all the congregants and the clergy in each church and asked many theological questions. Better questions elicit more accurate results.

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, however, that different convictions, though equally strong and clear, produce different outcomes.

For example, all the clergy from growing churches in our study, because of their theological outlook, held the conviction that it is "very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians." As theological conservatives, these pastors believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation and 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. As theological liberals, these pastors believe that there are many paths to salvation and that it is culturally insensitive to peddle your beliefs on those outside your religious community. Comparing the two theological outlooks, which do you think is more likely to generate church growth?

As social scientists, my colleagues and I are not advocating the theological rightness of one doctrinal position over another. But, if we are talking solely about church growth, conservative Protestant doctrine is the clear winner. With a nod to the season, mainline clergy and congregants with conservative outlook are more apt to be singing "Silent Night" this Christmas and in future years; theological liberals risk a different kind of silent night.

David Millard Haskell is associate professor of religion, culture, and digital media and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford Campus, Ontario, Canada. He is the lead author of "Theology Matters" in the Review of Religious Research, December 2016. He wrote this for