Conservative Churches Grow and Liberal Churches Don’t – Here’s Why


Those who don’t attend church regularly but are scouting for Christmas services this year might be surprised to find fewer mainline Protestant churches around these days. 

Across the English-speaking world the numerical decline of mainline Protestantism is accelerating. The largest mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church. Collectively, membership in these denominations decreases by about 1 million a year, resulting in hundreds of church closures annually.

While most mainline Protestant churches are declining, there’s been no consensus as to why. Hoping to solve this sociological riddle, some colleagues and I conducted a study. We tracked down an elusive sample of growing mainline congregations and compared them to a sample of declining congregations. We surveyed more than 2,200 of the congregants, half attending growing churches and half at declining churches, and the clergy who serve them.

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, with its more literal take on the Bible, was a significant predictor. Conversely, the analysis showed liberal theology, with its metaphorical reading of Scripture, leads to decline. Our research stands out because past studies have suggested theology and church growth are not linked. They are.

As you might imagine, our results have been well-received by theological conservatives. Liberal Christians have been a lot less satisfied.

Some tell us that liberal mainline Protestant churches do grow and they know this because they’ve seen it. But this is anecdotal fallacy. A single unverified case can’t be used to contradict strong statistical evidence.

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SOURCE: The Dallas Morning News
David Millard Haskell is associate professor of religion, culture, and digital media and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford Campus, Ontario, Canada. He wrote this for

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