By Ronald Kydd
Recent news reports have pointed to a Protestant miracle: there are still some growing mainline Protestant churches in Canada.
Those unfamiliar with the religious landscape of our country will need to know that mainline Protestant Churches here – the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches – are a shadow of their former selves and, as a clergyperson in the mainline family, I’m genuinely saddened. At one time, up to about the end of the 1960s, they were the spiritual home of the majority of Canadians who weren’t practicing Catholics. But about four decades ago the number of attendees began to fall off and the downhill momentum has continued unabated – or so some thought.
The media have described a new academic study that not only found some growing mainline Protestant churches in Canada, but also identified a reason for this growth. Published in the peer-reviewed Review of Religious Research, under the bluntly descriptive title “Theology Matters,” the study found that conservative theology – the kind of beliefs that most Christian clergy and church-goers held up until about the 1960s – predicts church growth. Conversely, liberal theology – with its skepticism toward the supernatural and its claim that most of the stories in the Bible are just metaphors – leads to decline.
The lead researchers, Drs. David Haskell and Kevin Flatt, from Wilfrid Laurier University and Redeemer University, respectively, surveyed over 2,200 congregants with about half drawn from declining mainline Protestant churches and half from growing ones. As Haskell and Flatt describe it in their news interviews, the search for the growing churches of their sample at times felt akin to tracking down unicorns. In addition to the church-goers, the researchers also surveyed and interviewed the clergy who served them. Compiling and analyzing their statistical data they concluded, “If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”
As a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada I am aware that many of my colleagues do not espouse that kind of theology and that they probably won’t be happy with the findings of this research. Similarly, I’m inclined to think the vast majority of clergy in Canada’s other mainline churches will be issuing a curse and not a blessing. As Haskell and Flatt discovered in their study, the clergy of declining mainline churches (and that is to say most mainline churches) embrace liberal theology in various degrees. It’s tough for pastors to acknowledge that their church is declining; it must be a whole lot tougher for them to think that the liberal theological content of their sermons may make them complicit.
In addition to being an Anglican priest, I’m also a professor of church history and I suppose it is my historical perspective that has allowed me, personally, to hear the news of Haskell and Flatt’s findings with little surprise. Looking at Christianity’s long and storied past, there is case after case of Christian churches declining as their clergy and congregants moved away from the traditional teachings and practices of Jesus and his disciples. Perhaps the greatest example comes from my very own Anglican church.
In the mid-1700s my church was in decline: church attendance was stagnant and there are recorded cases where the clergy themselves did not show up to lead services, choosing instead to attend other more entertaining functions. But out of that denominational malaise arose a movement of Anglicans who embraced a more conservative Protestant theology. So diligent and methodical were they in their religious beliefs and practice that their detractors – typically other Anglicans with more lackadaisical religious perspectives – starting calling them “Methodists.” Under the moniker of the Methodists this small core of committed Anglicans, conservative in their theology, broke from their parent church and grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in North America by the 1850s.
So when I hear the media and others go on about growing mainline Protestant churches in Canada and that it’s their conservative theology that makes them grow, I nod slowly and whisper a quiet “Ah, yes.” I suppose the Biblical writer of Ecclesiastes said it best: “What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” TAP
The Rev. Dr. Ronald Kydd is Associate Professor of Church History at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.