Does the theological conservatism of a church help or hinder its chances for growth? And what, if any, impact might that have on its social and political witness?
In a new research study, sociologist David Haskell and historian Kevin Flatt explore the first of these questions. Using survey data from 22 mainline Protestant churches across southern Ontario, the study concludes that “the theological conservatism of both attendees and clergy emerged as important factors in predicting church growth.”
“Our data demonstrate that within our sample, theological differences do matter for church growth,” they write. “…These associations hold even when church age, clergy age, congregant age, and the presence of conflict in the congregation are controlled for and other variables related to growth (such as worship style, youth emphasis, and clarity of purpose) are held constant.”
Though Haskell and Flatt plan to develop 5 academic papers from their data, the current study doesn’t seek to uncover an underlying explanation as to why the trend exists, nor does it aim to explore the other ripple effects to social witness. But for those who believe the church bears a distinct social responsibility, there’s a second overlapping and intersecting question that’s well worth asking: How might a church’s theological commitments and priorities impact its public voice and influence?
In his epilogue to The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on Evangelicalism and Social Justice, Flatt offers a separate set of reflections on this point. Unlike the study on church growth, the essay doesn’t rely on survey data, but it does point us to a strong historical case study from mainline Protestantism. Titled “A Cautionary Tale,” the essay sets its focus on the United Church of Canada, a denomination that has suffered a decline in recent years, not only in church attendance and participation, but also in social influence and political witness. (more…)