At least that’s what a recent Washington Post article states. David Millard Haskell (professor at Wilfrid Laurier University) just reported his peer-reviewed research on Canadian churches for the Post, and here’s what he found (emphasis mine):
Over the last five years, my colleagues and I conducted a study of 22 mainline congregations in the province of Ontario. We compared those in the sample that were growing mainline congregations to those that were declining. After statistically analyzing the survey responses of over 2,200 congregants and the clergy members who serve them, we came to a counterintuitive discovery: Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline. The results were published this month in the peer-reviewed journal, Review of Religious Research.
Here are several quick takeaways from this research.
First, this data builds off of existing data and reinforces prior findings. Dean Kelley sounded this horn back in the early 1970s with his book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, and Roger Finke and Rodney Starke pushed the conversation with their own pioneering sociological inquiry. This isn’t a new discovery in terms of the American scene, but now Haskell and Kevin Flatt (his coauthor) have found evidence of the trend in Ontario, Canada. That matters a great deal. I hope other researchers will test the thesis in global contexts, as I believe it will hold up in other areas.
Second, this research shows how important scholarship is. Sometimes evangelicals can make it sound as if all that matters is directly ministerial work. But this is not true. God loves the whole body of Christ, and he gives us all meaningful priestly service to carry out (1 Peter 2:9). The scholar sending out surveys, painstakingly combing the data, crafting a single journal article over months and even years, and then working to promote those findings can make a real contribution to our understanding (and even faith). This is of course true for Christians and non-Christians alike, but I speak with special reference to Christian scholars, who sometimes feel as if they are the JV team in the kingdom. (For one example, recall this explosive article on the positive contributions of missionaries–contra the common academic narrative–in worldwide locales.)
If you’re a scholar, and you’re doing research that will in some way refine and strengthen the faith of God’s people–God bless you. Keep at it. Labor long and hard. Do the anonymous work. Do it very, very well. Know that God is honored by your use of your mind in fulfillment of the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-39).
Third, there is no guarantee that holding conservative doctrine will result in numerical growth. The findings of the Canadian study do not ensure that conservative churches will grow numerically. In many cases, this has proved true. But we should not conclude that merely loving Scripture and Christ will ensure an upward trajectory for our congregations. In some cases, preaching the Word will mean that people leave us, and dislike us, and perhaps split our assembly.
Fourth, note that growing churches are in many cases younger churches. According to the article by Haskell and Flatt, “The declining churches were notably more elderly, with a mean age of 63, compared with 53 for the growing church participants,” which tells us something important. Churches often crave the presence of youth, but they struggle to know how to attract them. Super-hip worship leader? Venue with laser-lights and teeth-shattering sound system? Continual spate of culturally-attuned events that appeal to the hipster girl and the homecoming king alike?
In terms of an answer, here’s what is most clear: churches that want to attract young people should do what churches should already be doing: preaching the whole counsel of God and reaching out in love to the lost. Haskell and Flatt note the importance of evangelism to numerical growth: “because of their conservative outlook, the growing church clergy members in our study took Jesus’ command to “Go make disciples” literally.” There’s no perfect formula for drawing youth, but believing and preaching truth is what God promises to bless.
Fifth, Scripture-loving Christians should feel the force of 10,000 angels beneath their wings. Here’s the part of this little interaction where we crack the can open. What this article shows us is this: Scripture’s promises hold true. Or even more stratospherically: God builds his church. He does so by his Word. His Word does not fail. It is not outmoded.
To summarize: Jesus has not lost his fastball. He cannot be overcome, and his kingdom will advance as his church lifts high his gospel. Matthew 16:18 is true–gloriously, unstoppably true. Jesus has built on the rock. The rock will not move. The gates of hell will not overcome the church.
We don’t need a shred of research to know this. This conviction is not dependent even a little bit on scholarship. The Word has already spoken to this matter. But we are heartened to see the Word’s promises backed up. Every word of God is pure; he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him (Proverbs 30:5). This is the confidence of the pastor, the church planter, the saint wondering if in our secular context the darkness really is overwhelming the light. The answer is no. Never. The church will suffer violence, but it will never be overcome.
So, what does this mean for pastors? It means that they should step into the pulpit with immense confidence in God’s Word. It means that they should minister doctrine (biblical teaching) to the people of God with total trust in its ability to transform. It means that they should lead the church in aggressively reaching out to their lost neighbors, knowing that God will save sinners. It means that shepherds need not feel any pressure to be entertainers, effortlessly-cool leaders, comedians, political leaders, creatives ala Fast Company, super-erudite storytellers, personal gurus, movement-leaders, or any other unbiblical model of the pastorate.
Pastors should feel ten thousand angels behind them in their ministry. As Kevin Vanhoozer and I have argued in The Pastor as Public Theologian, they preach and minister the truth of God. They are theologians. They know that God will honor the ministry of the Word.
There is nothing in us that builds the church. It’s not cleverness, coolness, shrewdness, education, or worldliness that creates congregations. It’s the Word–all of it. Not just the palatable parts. It’s the doctrine of salvation preeminently, but it’s also the doctrines of creation ex nihilo, the total and ultimate authority of the Word of God, the absolute rightness of divine judgement, everlasting punishment for the unrepentant, the full portrait of God-honoring manhood and womanhood (not a chastened, minimalist version), the searing power of penal substitutionary atonement, the active righteousness of Christ as the righteousness of the believer, the necessity of Spirit-driven godliness in the believer’s life, and the sure and certain return of Christ the king.
Pastor: don’t just assent, absentmindedly almost, to these and many other biblical doctrines. Savor these truths. Love them. Stake your life on them. Hold them with humility, knowing you are not God, but preach them without apology. Do not think that the teachings of Christianity are incidental to the faith. The teachings of Christianity are Christianity. Take them away, and there is no faith once and for all time delivered to the saints. Hold them with passion and seriousness, and there will be saints who arise on the day of judgment, and stand before their Lord, and are acquitted by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Everything about this era pulls at us to distrust and downplay doctrine. The horsepower for ministry seems everywhere but the Word of God and the doctrines of God. Many of us are tempted to soften scriptural teachings. But this we must never do. We must hold fast to the trustworthy word on every point, not just the big ones. We do so to glorify God. We do so secondarily because there is no other means by which miserable sinners like us may be saved, transformed, and presented to the bride-groom on the day when the heavens become earth, the earth becomes God’s footstool, and the crumbled remains of every believer become flesh once more.
Image of First Baptist Church of Burlington, Vermont from Wikimedia Commons