Growing churches vs. declining churches: Canadian study says 'Theology Matters'

Talk about the revenge of the "tmatt trio"!

Regular readers of this blog may remember the set of questions that, since the dawn of GetReligion in 2005, we have referred to as the "tmatt trio." We are talking about three questions that, in the 1980s, I discovered always yielded interesting and often newsworthy content when I used them as journalistic tools to probe the fault lines inside Protestant denominations.

Now, two of the three questions have shown up in a study by researchers in Canada of patterns of growth, and decline, in oldline Protestant congregations in church-friendly southern Ontario. Hold that thought, because that was the hook for my Universal syndicate column this week, then the latest Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in).

Here's the basic trio set, as articulated in one of my earlier "On Religion" columns:

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, that 2014 column focused, in part, on conversations with the late George Gallup, Jr., that addressed issues of private and public faith in American life. When I shared my "trio" questions with him, Gallup said the key was that I was asking doctrinal questions, not political questions. The goal, he said, was to find out how these beliefs revealed themselves in the daily lives of real people. That was the link he kept trying to explore in his work. (The trio questions also were embedded in a LifeWay Research survey in 2014.)

That brings us to the current news in Canada, which centers on an academic paper by sociologist David Haskell and church historian Kevin Flatt, published in the peer-reviewed Review of Religious Research. The full title sets the stage:

Theology Matters:
Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy

 Now, you push this material through the editorial grid of The Guardian, on the other side of the Atlantic, and you get this headline:

Literal interpretation of Bible 'helps increase church attendance'
Study finds conservative theology mixed with innovative worship approach helps Protestant churches grow congregations

That's really interesting since the study doesn't use a "literal interpretation" model of biblical authority, but focuses, instead, on a series of questions about traditional, ancient Christian doctrines and then questions on the practice of faith in modern life.

You can see that same "The fundamentalists are coming!" editorial bias at work in this section of the Guardian story:

The findings contradict earlier studies undertaken in the US and the UK, which attempted to discover the underlying causes of a steep decline in church attendance in recent decades but concluded that theology was not a significant factor.

The results of the new study are likely to fuel anxious debate among church members about the reasons for decline and what measures or approaches might stimulate growth. Those promoting evangelical styles of worship and strict adherence to what they see as biblical truths will be bolstered by the findings.

Oh, the names and publication dates on those earlier studies? That would have helped.

But the key words there are "what they see as biblical truths." #REALLY

So what doctrines and practices are we talking about that are "evangelical" sort-of truths? Here's some summary material from my column and, thus, the podcast:

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. ...
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.

How does that show up in questions that, in two cases, are linked to the "tmatt trio" framework? Well, check this out:

* Clergy in growing churches affirmed, by an overwhelming 93 percent, that Jesus rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb, while 56 percent of clergy in declining churches agreed. Among laypeople, this divide was 83 percent vs. 67 percent.
* In growing churches, 46 percent of clergy strongly affirmed, and nearly 31 percent moderately affirmed, this statement: "Only those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ will receive eternal life." Zero pastors in declining churches affirmed that statement and 6 percent moderately agreed.
* In growing congregations, 100 percent of the clergy said it's crucial to "encourage non-Christians to become Christians," while only 50 percent of pastors in declining churches agreed.
* In declining churches, 44 percent of pastors agreed that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers," compared with 100 percent of clergy in growing congregations.

Is this relevant material, in an age when the demographic death dives seen in oldline Protestant denominations is one of the most significant, and often uncovered, news stories in our age?

Enjoy the podcast.

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