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What is Truth? (Hint: It’s more than Statistics)

In 1963 the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned the prominent, pithy journalist Pierre Berton to tell them, from an outsider’s perspective, exactly what was wrong with Canada’s churches and what they needed to do to fix it.

In the resulting book, The Comfortable Pew (1965), Berton took the churches to task for being too attached to old dogmas like Jesus’ resurrection, the Apostles’ Creed, and even the idea of God as a cosmic “daddy on a cloud.” In a modern age of rapid change, Berton wrote, Christians needed to abandon such primitive thinking. In the late twentieth century it would be “almost impossible” for faith to survive if it was based on traditional beliefs.

The book was a runaway bestseller and was highly praised by mainline church leaders, especially from the United and Anglican churches. His advice suited their convictions very well, and by and large their churches have been following it quite closely for the past half century.

It seems like reasonable advice, right? Don’t we all need to keep up with the times?

The thing is, it didn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact: the more closely churches followed Berton’s advice, the more they hemorrhaged people. The Anglicans peaked in 1964, the United Church in 1965. Since then they have lost well over half their membership.

Meanwhile, churches that defied Berton—relatively small conservative Protestant groups like the Fellowship Baptists, the Mennonite Brethren, and the Pentecostals—doubled or tripled in size in the same period. These churches held very tightly indeed to their traditional theological beliefs, especially the ones Berton thought were most embarrassing.

Historical evidence from the United States over the past two centuries shows a similar general pattern. Growth has favoured the more theologically conservative Protestant groups—that is, groups that see the Bible as trustworthy and accurate and base their theology on this.

But is this still true today? And does it apply at the level of individual churches? Here things get murkier. Some research has said yes, other research no.

Although the vast majority of mainline Protestant congregations in Canada are shrinking, a handful are growing. What makes them different? My colleagues Dave M. Haskell and Stephanie Burgoyne and I set out to answer this question.

Among other things, we found that the theological conservatism of both clergy and people were strongly positively linked with growth, even when a wide range of other factors were held constant. Other factors, like emphasis on youth ministry and accessible worship styles, were also important. Some of our results have recently been published in the Review of Religious Research, and Prof. Haskell has written about them on this blog.

Ever since we began presenting these findings, we have experienced a powerful backlash from some people. A lot of this backlash targets, not our methods or data, but things people think we are saying. We hear things like:

  • “You can’t judge the truth of a theology based on numbers.” (We agree).

  • “You can’t expect churches to change their beliefs in order to grow.” (Ditto).

When we’re speaking as social scientists, our job is to understand and describe what’s going on, not to tell people what they should be doing. Evidence linking conservative theology to growth doesn’t prove that conservative theology is true, or that churches should adopt it.

Frankly, it’s unrealistic to think that someone could completely reverse their beliefs because it might make their church grow. A dyed-in-the-wool theological liberal is not going to say, “I need to believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead if I want more church members? Gee, I guess I’ll do that.”

We take the old-fashioned view that people should believe the things they think are true, not the things they think will get bums in pews. While each of us on this research team have our own theological convictions (including profound disagreements), we don’t think this kind of research can or should convince people to change theirs.

So if we aren’t saying that, what are we saying?

First, we’re saying that churches’ beliefs do matter. They have effects. And different kinds of beliefs produce different effects, even if it’s unpopular to point that out.

Second, we’re adding our findings to a heap of evidence that Berton and others like him (e.g. John Spong) were simply empirically wrong in their predictions. Neither history nor sociology supports the claim that churches need to abandon traditional beliefs to survive and flourish.

Trying to figure out what to believe? Don’t be swayed too much by Berton and other prophets of relevance. Don’t let social scientists or church growth gurus drive the bus, either. Statistics have their uses, but identifying theological truth is not one of them.

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