It’s no secret that mainline church attendance is declining. However, many are curious as to the root cause of this exodus. In the 1960s, most mainline churches were filled, but in the last five decades, many of those same churches have either seen a considerable drop in attendance or closed their doors for good. What happened to those churches?
Enter David Haskell, professor of the sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University. Haskell set out to discover why many mainline churches are headed towards extinction. His findings were published in an article titled “Theology Matters: Comparing the traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” which appeared in the December 2016 issue of Review of Religious Research.
Haskell and his colleagues studied survey data from over 1000 attendees from growing mainline Protestant churches and around 1000 attendees from declining mainline Protestant churches. In addition, they interviewed the clergy of these churches. In an article in The Toronto Star, Haskell writes,
As a researcher it’s not often you make a discovery that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but, when we finished assessing our data, that’s what happened. We found it is conservative theology—with its emphasis on the factual truth of scripture and God’s activity in the world—that fuels church growth. Liberal theology leads to decline.
Haskell goes on,
We found, without exception, the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs—such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologically conservative and the declining church clergy the least. When we used statistical analysis to determine which factors are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology was a significant predictor.
Haskell’s findings are clear. Churches that teach that God’s Word is true are more likely to grow than those churches that don’t. In short, theology matters.
But why is this so surprising? On the one hand, if your theology teaches the good news of Jesus Christ—that while we were enemies of God, deserving of His wrath, God loved us enough to send His Son to die for the world—then people are going to share this good news with their friends and family so that they, too, will become followers of Christ. In fact, they are commanded to go into the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19). As a result, churches will grow.
On the other hand, if your theology teaches that it doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus, or that Scripture cannot be trusted, or that miracles don’t happen, or that God doesn’t act, or that all people go to heaven because they are basically good, then people aren’t going to bother encouraging their friends and family to become Christians. Why would they? This theology has no real impact on their lives.
This isn’t rocket science.
At Stand to Reason, this is our primary focus. We teach people to articulate and defend the theological truths of classical Christianity. We believe theology plays a fundamental role in the life of the believer. Moreover, we have found that engaging the minds of our young people with the deep truths of the Christian faith plays a crucial role in their continuing in the faith past high school.
Pizza parties, movie nights, and laser tag aren’t going to cut it. If we want to keep our young people, we need to stop entertaining them, and start educating them with life-giving, confidence-building, worship-inspiring theological truth.
The church shouldn’t need a secular sociologist to tell us how to keep people in the pews each week. It’s not hard. Give people the rich theological truth that will set them free, and then watch the Holy Spirit work.