After statistically analyzing the survey responses of over 2,200 congregants and the clergy members who serve them, we came to a counterintuitive discovery: Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline. The results were published this month in the peer-reviewed journal, Review of Religious Research [downloads document]. …
[D]ifferent beliefs, though equally strong, produce different outcomes.
For example, because of their conservative outlook, the growing church clergy members in our study took Jesus’ command to “Go make disciples” literally. Thus, they all held the conviction it’s “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” and thus likely put effort into converting non-Christians. Conversely, because of their liberal leanings, half the clergy members at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians. Some of them felt, for instance, that peddling their religion outside of their immediate faith community is culturally insensitive.
Now, a couple of cautions.
- “Conservative” in this context includes all Churches of Christ. That is, by the definitions used by the authors, both progressive and “conservative” Churches of Christ are conservative. The conservatism in mind is to believe, for example, that Jesus really did die on the cross and really was resurrected in actual earth time and space — not symbolically but as a matter of fact. Or to believe that God really does answer prayer, even intervening in the present world to cause things to happen that would not have happened but for the prayers.
- No one has remotely suggested that being more conservative leads to more growth. In fact, sectarianism (we’re the only ones saved) is a major inhibitor of growth (not studied in this report but obviously true). Taking the Bible very seriously as true and authoritative does in fact help a church grow.
- There is also a very strong correlation between contemporary musical and worship styles and church growth. “The results suggest that, in aggregate, growing churches tended to use more contemporary instrumentation and presentation technology and declining churches tended to be more traditional. Speciﬁcally, there were statistically signiﬁcant differences in the use of electric guitar, visual projection, and video clips.”
- Youth ministry also correlates strongly with church growth.
In summary, according to the report,
In order of effect size in our most fully articulated model (model 3), the church’s use of contemporary worship, the church’s emphasis on youth programs, the theological conservatism of clergy, and the theological conservatism of congregants each had a signiﬁcant positive effect on growth.
On the other side of the ledger, the age of clergy, the age of the church, the presence of past conﬂict in the church, and the age of congregants each had a signiﬁcant negative effect on growth.
A church’s clarity of mission and purpose as perceived by congregants, however, did not have a signiﬁcant relationship with growth in our model.
I am frankly surprised at the last point, that clarity of mission has little impact on growth. That may be because any truly conservative church will pursue evangelism and care for those in need. Or it may be because we just aren’t very good at pursuing an agreed vision. Or (and this is what I think is most likely true) vision needs to be the Spirit’s vision, not the leaders’ vision. To me, the challenge is (a) for the leaders to find the congregational vision by finding their members’ passions (which are a very strong indication of the Spirit’s leading) and (b) for the leaders to equip and empower the members to follow the Spirit’s lead.
(Rom. 8:5 ESV) 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.