Recent research in Canada confirms that theology and belief really do matter when it comes to church growth and decline. The churches that are growing have ministers that affirm traditional Christian beliefs while the ones in decline not so much. Here’s the story from On Religion:
The bottom line: The faith proclaimed in growing churches was more orthodox – especially on matters of salvation, biblical authority and the supernatural – than in typical mainline congregations. …
Focusing on 2003-2013, the researchers defined “decline” as an average loss of 2 percent of church attendees a year. “Growing” churches were gaining people in the pews at a rate of 2 percent or more.
“…What we see is that growing churches hold more firmly to basics of traditional Christianity, including being more diligent about things like prayer, Bible reading and evangelism.”
Crucial findings in this study showed that, in growing churches, pastors tend to be more conservative than the people in their pews. In declining congregations, pastors are usually more theologically liberal than their people.
Response: This research was interesting on a number of different levels. First of all it was done in mainline Canadian denominations which are all in decline. The leaders in those denominations really didn’t seem to care enough to even know about the few ‘success’ stories that were in their own organizations.
It really is a question of why bother. If the traditional beliefs are no longer taught or supported then the church becomes nothing more than another social club that meets together once a week and does some good things for people once in a while. But there are lots of other groups that do the same.
In the growing congregations, the pastors nearly all believed in the resurrection of Jesus while a substantial number in the declining churches did not. Those leaders in the declining churches need to re-read I Corinthians 15: 14 where Paul states that the church and the faith are a waste of time if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead.
The ‘growing’ pastors also teach that it is crucial for non-believers to become Christians and 100% of them believe that God still answers prayers today and performs miracles while the leaders of the churches in decline are far less supporting.
Similar research was done a generation ago in the USA. Dean M. Kelley in his book- “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing” (New York: Harper & Row, 1972, Updated, 1977) came to many of the same conclusions as this recent research in Canada.
It stirred up quite a controversy while I was attending a mainline seminary and many books and research projects followed all of which substantially supported the original. Nevertheless, the mainline denominations that were declining continue to decline because their liberal leaders obviously did not want to make the changes that would make them more successful as an organization if they had to become more conservative in the process.
In the last 40 years or so, the segment of the American church that saw the most growth were conservative evangelical non-denominational churches while the more liberal mainline churches continued to sharply decline and the more conservative denominational congregations showed some slight gains.
I am also sure that the Canadian denominational leaders will mostly ignore this research and probably make statements supporting a view that growth is not all that important that diversity is a more important goal in Canada. *Top