By Jason Postma

Ideas have legs. Or, if you will, you reap what you sow. The truth of these sayings is nearly universally accepted; their wisdom is incontrovertible — unless you are reacting to a sociological study analyzing the cause of growth and decline in mainline congregations.

After a five-year study of 22 congregations, and interviews with over 2,220 congregants and the clergy who serve them, David Haskell, Kevin Flatt, and Stephanie Burgoyne concluded that ideas have legs. More specifically, their study, “Theology Matters,” concluded that congregations that espouse “liberal” theology are declining and congregations that espouse “conservative” theology are growing.

One would assume that this relatively straightforward conclusion, backed by strong statistical evidence, would be cause for prayerful reflection by congregations of all theological stripes and sizes. A particularly pertinent question for reflection is: How are we, as God’s people in this community, being faithful or unfaithful to the traditions we have received? (cf. 2. Thess. 2:15). Like all traditions, Christian tradition is living and breathing and therefore requires careful stewardship and contemplation in every age and culture. Faithfulness matters.

However, once the results of the study were publicized in major publications (e.g., herehere, here, here, here, and here), responses were often less careful and more visceral. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more reactive responses came from those implicated in ecclesial decline, and ranged from outright rejection of the conclusions to suggestive claims about the hidden agendas of the authors, to more relevant questions about the adequacy of sample size and definitions, to attempts to refocus the question away from theology to demographics, to smug chiding of apparently simple-minded conservatives, to outright apathy. After all, who cares?

In many ways, these reactions strangely echo that of the tenants in Jesus’ parable in Luke 20:9-18; the servants sent by the vineyard owner are beaten and sent away empty-handed. Haskell, Flatt, and Burgoyne could be just those servants. Sometimes it seems as though those laboring in liberal fields are content to continue sowing seed that does not produce a good yield as a matter of principle, regardless of the desires of the vineyard owner. Are liberals, in defiance of their own theology, hoping for a miracle of an abundant yield? Or is a stubborn refusal to repent part of the problem? After all, is  nice people doing nice things” a perfectly acceptable ecclesial raison d’être in this day and age?

And what will happen when the son of the vineyard or the vineyard owner appears?

Liberal churches ought to reflect seriously on this question, as it is posed by the results of the Haskell study. Indeed, liberal reactions of protesting and questioning the conclusions of the study could be counted as evidence that the conclusions are indeed accurate, indicative of a failure to reflect prayerfully upon a potential word from the Lord. Nevertheless, the Word of God comes to us both as judgment and, therefore, mercy.

Conservative churches, on the other hand, cannot simply respond to the study’s results with a smug sense of superiority.[1] It doesn’t tell the whole story. There remain theologically orthodox congregations that are not experiencing numerical growth, despite having sound preaching, top-notch music, and excellent discipleship programs.[2] Moreover, conservative congregations that are growing should reflect on the sources of their growth: Is it from robust and winsome evangelism? Or do marketing gimmicks explain their success? Or are they merely the benefactors of ecclesial attrition? The latter two situations are hardly causes for celebration; they are causes for repentance.

And what will happen when the son of the vineyard or the vineyard owner appears?

Conservative churches cannot be lulled into complacency, but must seriously reflect on this question as it is posed by the results of the Haskell study. The refusal to do so will ensure that this word will fall on deaf ears and conservative churches will find themselves in exile alongside their liberal sisters and brothers. The Word of God comes to us as judgment, and, therefore, mercy.

Mainline churches in North America, liberal and conservative alike, are slowly awakening to the realization that the days of cultural Christendom are over. For some, this is a cause for anxiety; the result is a desperate attempt to stay in sync with culture, even if it means jettisoning core elements of the Church’s traditions and teachings.[3] For others, post-Christendom is a cause for celebration, as though we can finally get on with the work of the Church without the hindrance of excess cultural baggage.[4]

The post-Christendom situation of the Church need not be complex. If it is true that theology matters, that ideas have legs, that we reap what we sow, then the focus of the church moving into the future is as simple as keeping and sharing the faith as we’ve received it without cultural accommodation or rejection. Of course, this is easier said than done, but I find great encouragement in knowing that it can be done. The conclusions of “Theology Matters” indicate as much.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

The Rev. Jason Postma is assistant curate to the rector in the Regional Ministry of Saugeen Shores, Tara, and Chatsworth.

Footnotes

[1] Nor should they simply accept the entire study at face value. For example, the authors’ definition of the “factual” understanding of Scripture is theologically problematic, as are their definitions of “liberal” and “conservative.”

[2] Moreover, there are also liberal congregations that are growing numerically. However, at this point it is important to remind ourselves that anecdotal evidence cannot override statistical evidence, our desires to the contrary notwithstanding.

[3] For some others, the rise of secularization in post-Christendom is a cause for celebration because it means liberation from outdated and irrelevant traditions. Cf. for example, the work of John Shelby Spong.

[4] For others, post-Christendom means that the church has to reclaim the culture in order to restore it to proper godly order.

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5 Comments on "Shooting the messengers? ‘Conservative’ theology and church growth"

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Interesting. At least 25 or 30 years ago there was a book in the U.S. called “Why Conservative Churches are Growing,” so it’s not a new notion. As one who is very much a “conservative” within the ambit of my own ecclesial milieu, I have a strong confirmation bias when I see material like this. I *want* it to be true. But, without at all impugning the methodology of the authors, about which I know almost nothing, it does not ring true for me at an anecdotal level. I can readily point to several examples of “liberal” congregations that are… Read more »

Can you please tell me what your meaning when you say “liberal congregations” and “conservative congregations?”
What is a liberal church?
What is a conservative church?

Thank-you for your response, Bishop. I admit, I want the findings to be true as well. But, as you indicate, this is not necessarily the case. However, I take some small comfort in knowing that the congregations founded by St. Paul and others are not in existence and may well have not ‘survived’ beyond a generation or two. Nevertheless, the gospel of Christ is still proclaimed to this day. I wonder if our modern paradigms for ‘success’ and ‘growth’ are part of the problem, especially faced with decline. Perhaps the solution is not success or growth, but faithfulness, a kind… Read more »

“For example, the authors’ definition of the “factual” understanding of Scripture is theologically problematic, as are their definitions of “liberal” and “conservative.”

Well, exactly. So why should anyone – of any persuasion – feel the need to “reflect seriously” on findings derived from so iffy a premise?

Geoff, Thanks for your response. The study in question is sociological in nature, so I am not going to fault sociologists for a lack of theological nuance. They are sociologists primarily writing for sociologists. I think the Church has a responsibility to listen and an obligation to engage with the study and its findings; to dismiss it out of hand simply because we do not like the results is a problem. The study is not cobbled together by a partisan think-tank; it is a peer-reviewed study. Part of the Church’s engagement is to press back theologically to aid in further… Read more »
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