Photo: Courtesy of Elmdon Church, Solihul, UK
As a boy in the 1970s I often accompanied my grandmother to her neighborhood United Church for Sunday service. Back then my Grandma’s church was packed with young and old alike. It wasn’t unique. The other Mainline Protestant houses of worship in her town—the local Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches—were all filled.
Times change. In Canada, the US and the UK the “Mainline” has moved to the “Sideline.” My grandmother’s United church was torn down just two years ago. Again, not unique. Mainline Protestant churches across the West are closing every month.
Curious about the root cause of this ongoing exodus of attendees, a few years ago some colleagues and I launched a study of Mainline Protestant churches. The main findings came out in academic journals end of November and early December, 2016, and were reported by the media.
To get to our findings we processed mounds of survey data comparing the traits of over 1000 attendees from a selection of growing Mainline Protestant churches—which were difficult to find—to a near equal number of attendees from declining Mainline Protestant churches. We also surveyed and interviewed the clergy who serve them. When we used statistical analysis to disentangle which factors are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology was a significant predictor. Our research stands out because past studies have suggested theology and church growth are not linked. They are.
Like all researchers, my colleagues and I are pleased that our work is getting noticed by the public. However, our worry is that the public will seize on this single, albeit very important, finding from the study and miss some other noteworthy discoveries. For example, in addition to establishing that conservative Protestant doctrine predicts increase our analysis also showed that two other factors play a significant positive role in church growth: contemporary worship and emphasis on youth programming. Put simply, churches that adhere to conservative Protestant theology are more likely to grow than those that do not, but their chance of growth increases when they employ drums and guitars in service and connect with youth in multiple ways inside and outside the church.
I can imagine there may be church-goers of a more liberal theological persuasion who read the list of “ingredients” above and wonder: “Can my church just ignore that conservative theology piece but bring in a band for Sunday and start doing more events for kids during the week and expect our pews to fill with people?”
The good news is that with a strategy like that your church will likely attract more people; the bad news is that it probably won’t keep them. Catchy music and engaging events for youth are enough to make some unaffiliated individuals want to go to your church. But, for a church to actually grow, the attendees must feel they need to go. For a host of reasons centering on their more literal interpretation of the Bible (which, among other things, commands them to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, and strength) churches adhering to conservative Protestant doctrine seem better at eliciting that response. In our published work we theorize that growing churches’ tendency to use strategies like contemporary worship and clever youth events also rises out of conservative doctrine. When you literally believe it’s your mission to “Go and make disciples” you find innovative means to reach that goal.
Unfortunately, there’s more bad news for those looking for the miracle cure to an ailing church. While our study identifies the factors that predict growth—conservative theology, contemporary worship, and emphasis on youth programming—churches that have all three are not guaranteed growth. Certainly, they are better positioned for numerical increase than other churches without the three factors, but we can envision circumstances where even that’s not enough.
For example, churches with unfriendly congregations or terrible preachers would be unlikely to grow no matter what. Another article my colleagues and I just published in the Canadian Review of Sociology titled "Factors Influencing Church Choice" explores this phenomenon and makes that case.
My grandmother’s church was a friendly, lively place. Before it joined the denomination of the United Church of Canada in 1925, it was an evangelical Methodist church and it still had that vibe. Occasionally, during the services we attended together, the congregation would harken back to their Methodist roots and sing the Gospel song “Gimme that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.”
For my grandmother and her fellow congregants, the “old time religion” may have been enough, but today, for church growth, it’s just a start.
Dr. David Millard Haskell, Wilfrid Laurier University is author along with Drs. Kevin Flatt and Stephanie Burgoyne of “Theology Matters: Comparing the traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy”, in the Review of Religious Research, Volume 58, Issue 4 (December 2016).