David Millard Haskell is the lead author of Theology Matters in December's Review of Religious Research.
If you went to Sunday school, you heard the story of Jonah and chances are you remember that he was swallowed by a whale. But what often gets forgotten is the story's larger theme. Jonah is given a divine message and is instructed to deliver it to a people on the verge of calamity but, for some specific reasons, he's reluctant.
Minus hearing the voice of God, for the last couple of weeks, I've felt a little like Jonah.
The information I'm delivering relates to a study some colleagues and I conducted that explored mainline Protestant churches. Since the 1960s, churches in the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United denominations have been steadily losing members and we wanted to determine why.
Through statistical analysis of survey data from a near-even mix of growing and declining church attendees and their clergy, we found that conservative religious doctrine, known for emphasizing a more literal interpretation of scripture, is a key driver for church growth in mainline Protestant congregations. Liberal doctrine, which emphasizes a metaphorical interpretation, leads to decline.
The unease I feel in relaying my own study's findings stems from my personal history. I was baptized, went to Sunday school, then youth group in a mainline Protestant church. I went to and worked at a mainline Protestant summer camp. I got married in a mainline church. While my attendance has lapsed, my attachment to mainline Protestantism continues.
Of course, my colleagues and I are excited to make public the answer to what has been an ongoing sociological riddle. However, when I think of the impact the answer is likely to have on mainliners of a more liberal theological bent, people with whom I have genuine relationships, I have cause to be reflective.
I recognize that many of these liberal clergy and congregants are already experiencing the trauma of a dying church; it must be very saddening, maybe even frustrating, to hear that some researchers now claim the theological outlook they esteem is a contributing factor in their church's death.
As our research has gained more media exposure, I've been asked if I think the findings, apart from upsetting liberal Protestants, might have any other effect on them. An experience that took place near the conclusion of our research has influenced my opinion. We sent initial reports to the churches that had participated in the study. Shortly after, a minister from one of the declining churches, a self-declared theological liberal, called to talk. After a deep sigh, she said, "A tiger can't change its stripes and you can't teach an old dog new tricks."
I think her comment reflects the thoughts of most mainline clergy and congregants who are theological liberals. They've come to their views honestly, through deep reflection, and a change of outlook would amount to a betrayal of conscience.
And while we likely can't expect the "old dogs" to learn "new tricks," what about the new dogs? There are signs of an interesting development.
In our study, in addition to their theological differences, we found that the pastors of the growing churches were, on average, about a decade younger than those of the declining. Other researchers have made similar observations.
In her study of mainline congregations across the United States, Martha Grace Reese, who has led five major research grants dealing with evangelism and congregational transformation over 18 years, found growing congregations typically had younger pastors. Her data also showed these younger pastors had greater theological conservatism. However, in keeping with previous research on church growth, Ms. Reese makes no connection between theology and a congregation's numerical increase. In light of our results, we see a connection.
The evidence is far too inadequate to make the case that younger, theologically conservative clergy are an increasing phenomenon within mainline Protestantism. But, if this does turn out to be a real trend, growth could follow.
Hearing that the hope for their denominations may be in the hands of younger pastors with dramatically different theological outlooks is likely cold comfort for liberal clergy in Canada's mainline churches. But like Jonah, I'm just the messenger. If they want to complain, they'll have to take it up with the boss.