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.
In the mid-19th century, Flatt explains, Canada’s Methodist and Presbyterian bodies “formed the backbone of Canadian evangelicalism, deeply committed to biblical authority and deathly serious about the proclamation of a gospel of eternal salvation at home and abroad.” Yet after a series of theological squabbles, due in part to the rise of modernity and competing ideologies of progress, many saw the “social gospel” of the early 20th century as a convenient path to unity:
Social activism of various kinds had a long history in evangelicalism, but by making the central purpose of the church the “salvation of society”—the amelioration of social conditions through activism—the social gospel bypassed awkward doctrinal discussions. Preachers could stick to the Sermon on the Mount and selections of the Minor Prophets and avoid theological showdowns with their congregations. Ministers whose theological education had shorn them of belief in original sin or the deity of Christ could still find their purpose in urban planning reform or women’s suffrage. Above all, the social gospel allowed the churches to focus on something practical and avoid what was often labeled fruitless controversy.
Thus, the United Church of Canada was created in 1925, formed largely to “pursue social reform on a national scale,” Flatt explains. This would be “a church defined by its commitment to social justice.”
Over time, however, the church’s overt emphasis on social activism allowed for the creep of theological liberalism into its pews. By the 1960s, leaders were boldly questioning the virgin birth, the existence of hell, and whether Jesus was the Son of God or the only way to God and heaven. The result was a unified political ideology of little distinction with the secular Left, paired with theological disorder in the guise of “diversity” and a decline in church attendance and participation. “A United Church that will take a firm stance to boycott goods produced by Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but won’t rebuke a moderator who denies Christ’s deity and resurrection, simply doesn’t attract much support as a church,” Flatt writes. “…If current trends continue, the United Church, formed to be the social conscience of a nation, will not have any members left to celebrate its 125th birthday.”
Yet the United Church’s over-elevation of social activism needn’t be taken a warning against social activism in general, just as we shouldn’t fall prey to the assumption that such risks only come into play with left-leaning or progressive political and social ideologies. Instead, we should embrace the social role and voice of the church even as we stay wary of what Flatt describes as “the danger of well-intentioned activism being taken captive by cultural currents foreign to the gospel.”
“It is easy for churches to have their activism hijacked by alien ideologies, whether of the Left or of the Right or of some other configuration,” he writes. Churches must remain aware of those risks and avoid similar pitfalls, working to “cultivate a robust spiritual life and a thoroughly biblical social witness through what might be called a chain of faithfulness.” This chain, he continues, consists of the following core components (quoted directly from Flatt):
- Vibrant, orthodox local churches, willing to reject any gods other than the God of the Bible, shaped by the Word and the sacraments, saturated in prayer, and in general formed by liturgies and practices strong enough to counteract those of the surrounding culture.
- Trained elders (clergy), including seminary professors and administrators, absolutely faithful to God and their trust, serious about and skilled in the obedient interpretation and exposition of Scripture in communion with the historic and global church, and held accountable by the church.
- Lay experts, immersed in the life of the church and the teaching of the elders, who can develop, from biblical foundations and the tradition of the church, Christian proposals regarding the pressing social and political issues of the day.
- Faithful social and political action by the church (institutional and organic…), guided by the voices of these experts.
The order of priorities here is important, as is the bigger picture of the integrated whole, which requires a mix of healthy relationships, sound teaching, robust institutions, and organic, spirit-led initiative, whether among individuals or communities.
Getting each link right won’t be easy – it surely hasn’t been easy – but at minimum, we’d do well to reorient our hearts, minds, and imaginations around the basic premise.
“Activism that disregards Scripture or church tradition, or that is not rooted in worship and Word and sacrament, or that does not arise from careful thinking by well-trained Christians knowledgeable in their fields, may be quick and easy,” Flatt concludes, “but in the end it will ape culturally dominant patterns of secular activism, and the salt will lose its savor.”