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Steve Weatherbe

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Conservative churches growing, liberal ones withering in Canada: study

Steve Weatherbe

CANADA, December 12, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – A new study of 22 mainline Protestant congregations in southern Ontario reveals the common factor in those experiencing growth is their emphasis on youth programs and adherence to traditional Christian beliefs in Jesus’ Resurrection, the uniqueness of His message, and the presence of the supernatural in everyday life.

Without exception, study co-author Kevin Flatt told LifeSiteNews, “the growing churches all had conservative theology, the declining churches all had liberal theology.” He added, “We did have one liberal church claiming growth, but when we looked closely, it turned out to be declining too.”

The authors, who included fellow academics David Haskell and Stephanie Burgoyne, focused on 13 declining and nine growing congregations from Canada’s four mainline Protestant churches — Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian — and asked clergy and members the same set of questions about traditional Christian doctrine and current congregational characteristics. Those included how much emphasis is put on youth programs, the congregation’s mission, and what members fought about internally.

Flatt, a history professor at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, told LifeSiteNews that the team had a difficult time finding examples of growth because all mainline Protestant churches in Canada, as in the U.S., are characterized by shrinking numbers at rates that lead some to predict their outright disappearance, in Canada at least, by mid-century.

Meanwhile, conservative Evangelical Protestant churches, which frequently operate outside any firm denominational framework, are growing in both countries. The reasons for this, as the Canadian study relates, have been researched at length, with some scholars attributing it to birthrate, others to  better membership retention, and yet others to superior recruitment.

But “recruitment” to scholars is “evangelism” to Christians. And Flatt and his colleagues clearly subscribe to the theory that ties conservative Christian theology to strong efforts at evangelization — and to growth.

“If you believe this kind of conservative theology, then you believe, first of all — that it is important,” Flatt said.

While members of shrinking congregations tended to relativistic positions such as seeing Christ as a worthy teacher like Buddha and believing there are many roads to the good life and salvation, those attending growing fellowships agreed much more strongly with such statements like ‘‘It is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians;” ‘‘Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for the forgiveness of my sins;’’ and ‘‘Those who die face a divine judgment where some will be punished eternally.”

Flatt explains, “If we believe it’s important, we want to share it with others. We read in the Scriptures the command to go and make disciples of all the nations. Christian belief is not just one option among many for conservative Christians.  Our job is to share it.”

But this, Flatt says, is speculation. The study connects conservative theology with growth; it doesn’t explain how it works. However, it does reveal other characteristics that correlate strongly with growth.

“Growing churches were significantly more likely to emphasize youth programs and to employ contemporary worship styles,” the study states. “To some extent, these characteristics may be driven by a desire to make the faith accessible to a wider community for evangelistic purposes, which is itself partly explainable in terms of theological conservatism.”

Flatt said the most surprising finding was the clergy in growing denominations more conservative than their congregations, and the clergy in shrinking congregations more liberal than their congregations.

Flatt said the structure of the Catholic Church made it hard to apply the findings but noted that there was evidence that conservative Catholic religious communities were growing and liberal communities were disappearing.

The study appeared in May in the Review of Religious Research. 

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