Study finds conservative theology leads to church growth

The Guardian have reported that a new study has found that theological belief is closely tied to church growth. Specifically, they state:

Churches that are theologically conservative with beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible grow faster than those with a liberal orientation, according to a five-year academic study.

The study compared the beliefs and practices of both church leaders and worshippers in congregations that are growing and those that are declining. Uniformly, the study found that those experiencing decline hold to liberal theology whilst those experiencing growth are theologically conservative and often evangelical in practice. The paper reports that among the the key findings were:

  • Only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians”, compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches.

  • 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches.

  • 46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches.

  • 93% of clergy and 83% of worshippers from growing churches agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb”. This compared with 67% of worshippers and 56% of clergy from declining churches.

  • 100% of clergy and 90% of worshippers agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers”, compared with 80% of worshippers and 44% of clergy from declining churches.

The paper report ‘[David] Haskell [lead researcher] said he expected the findings of the study, which was not commissioned by any group or organisation, to be controversial’. He went on to say:

If you’re in a mainline church and that church is dying, and you’ve just heard that the theological position that you have is likely what’s killing it, you’re not going to be very happy about that, Theological orientation cuts to the very core of the religious practitioner.

The reality is that such findings ratify what has long been known. One does not have to conduct an extensive survey to know that the Evangelical church is growing in the UK whilst those wedded to theological liberalism have long been in decline and many have died altogether. Evangelicals across all denominations have long contended that, despite overall figures on church attendance, their churches are indeed growing. The findings will come as no real shock to anybody who cares to look.

What is perhaps more interesting, if perhaps unsurprising, is the direct link between church growth and theology. It has sometimes been assumed that Evangelical praxis has been the driver of church growth. Specifically, the Evangelical desire to actually evangelise, unlike their liberal counterparts who tend not to, was often identified as the fundamental reason behind church growth. Of course, one is unlikely to bother sharing the gospel unless there is a real belief in it and a theological imperative to do so. That is something, if not unique to Conservative Evangelicals, uniquely worked out by them. These findings show that Conservative theology, and specifically Conservative Evangelical doctrine (I suspect the Guardian are being a little simplistic in their ‘literal belief’ tag, for it depends exactly what they mean by that), is the basic catalyst behind church growth.

Again, though, this should hardly surprise us. If one believes Jesus Christ really and physically rose from the dead that inevitably has major implications that must be worked out in real ways. If you simply believe that is a historic story, embellished for the purposes of teaching moralism, you are left with little more than an fable from Aesop whose implications you can take or leave. If you aren’t even convinced it’s primarily a moral myth, you are left with a historical narrative that you believe to be entirely made up – there are no implications and giving up a morning a week, especially given the busy schedule of modern life, why on earth would you bother?

And at heart, that drives just about everything. If you believe implications abound from a real bodily resurrection of Jesus, and you believe if that is true the rest of the Bible must also be true, the Biblical mandate to meet together regularly will be seen as a command from the same God who raised Jesus back to life. Such a belief system inevitably leads to a strong desire to share scriptural truth with others. As the study notes, ‘because they are profoundly convinced of [the] life-saving, life-altering benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church’. One can go further, the Bible even tells us to love strangers and our enemies. If we really believe it, and we really believe the Bible is God’s inspired word, that is a powerful motivator.

Compare that with the belief system of the theological liberal. If the Bible is a mere source document, at best valuable for moral thoughts, there is no more reason to follow it than there is to read Herodotus and do the same. If the Bible is not God’s inspired word to us, then we can read it as nothing more than the thoughts of men who may, or may not, have some good insights for us. The imperatives can be read as advisory and, when I don’t feel like doing them or I simply disagree with them, I can jettison them entirely. Any sense of community I receive from my church is not based on a shared belief, for we may all draw different and contradictory conclusions about what we a reading. The church becomes little more than a shared interest group, a special interest historical society, but one that doesn’t permit the insights of its members so much as it receive a lecture each week from the same teacher, who continues to carry out rituals that none of us believe are of any value or merit. It is not hard to see how such a system inevitably becomes empty and those looking in from outside cannot see the purpose in joining. The benefits of coming in could be enjoyed in any shared interest group, usually over an interest in which the onlooker is eminently more interested.

All of this is a potent reminder to the Conservative Evangelical of the importance of clear Biblical teaching. This study is, in fact, another evidence of the truth of the Bible’s claims:

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:14-17)

4 comments

  1. Even ignoring the confession, it’s the practice that speaks to the hearts of the anti-Christ organizations. I’m grateful to God that He gives their organizations declining memberships, because it increases the strength of our message when we hold true to the Bible in context. It’s the reason we can effectively evangelize in places those organizations cannot.

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    1. Ultimately, yes I think you’re right. But the teaching leads to the praxis which belies the heart. It is sound theology that underpins right practice which, equally, shows the heart of those who subscribe to it.

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