Don’t worry, the “Globe and Mail” has the solution:

Attendance increasing
at theologically conservative churches

blares today’s headline.

According to researchers David Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University and his colleagues Kevin Flatt and Stephanie Burgoyne, Globe writer, Joe Friesen reports that,

Those in the growing churches are significantly more likely than those at the ones in decline to agree with statements such as “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” and “God performs miracles in answer to prayer.” They’re also more likely to pray and read the Bible daily, the researchers found.

So, there’s the answer to declining churches. Believe “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” “God performs miracles in answer to prayer”, and “pray and read the Bible daily,” and presto, no more decline just happy growth…. apparently.

The key is to be “conservative.” “Conservative” means,

taking a more literal interpretation of scripture and a greater openness to the idea that God intervenes in the world.

What the Globe and Mail editors who penned the catchy headline for Friesen’s article failed to acknowledge in their short summary are some of the other findings Friesen happened to mention also found in growing churches:

the growing churches tend to innovate in the service. They are more likely to feature contemporary worship, with music that includes drums and guitars, while declining parishes often had the traditional organ and choir.

“These mainline churches that have conservative Protestant doctrine are like a peach: really easy to get into. They’re playing contemporary music, it’s family friendly, the pastor dresses in casual clothes, but there’s a hard core at the centre,” Prof. Haskell said. “The declining churches were more like a coconut. From the outside hard to access, and then once you were in, there really wasn’t anything in the middle. This is the impression we got from the criticisms of people who had left.”

So, why doesn’t the headline say,”Attendance increasing at churches that don’t have organs or choirs”? Or, “Attendance growing at churches that feature contemporary worship with drums and guitars”? Or, perhaps “Attendance growing at churches that are family friendly and welcoming”?

A “more literal interpretation of scripture,” droned from a distant pulpit, set in a context of dreary music, depressing prayers, and disconnected relationships will never grow your church even if your congregation subscribes to the theory that “God intervenes in the world”, any more than buying a guitar and a set of drums will make your church grow.

Six years ago, Joe Friesen and Michael Valpy in the Globe and Mail announced a different plan for growing churches:

What attracts native-born Canadians to church these days, says religion sociologist David Seljak of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., is the availability of parking, quality of preaching and children’s programs, in that order.

Perhaps we need to look a little deeper.

In my experience people who are looking for a church at all, are looking for three things, neither of which is “a more literal interpretation of scripture” nor “a greater openness” to the theoretical concept “that God intervenes in the world.”

People are looking for engaging, accessible worship in which they feel there is room for all people to participate. They are looking for authentic spirituality combined with relevant spiritual practices that help them live out their spirituality in their daily lives.  They are looking for warm authentic human relationships where people can come together without having to feel they need to dress up and pretend to a sanctity they know they do not possess.

If churches are concerned about decline, they might start by asking:

What practices are we clinging to that might be a barrier to someone unfamiliar with our cherished worship rituals?

How deeply are we who find our spiritual nourishment in this community living out our spirituality in our daily lives and how effective are we at bearing witness to our spiritual commitments?

When outsiders look at the way we in this community relate to one another will they feel drawn by the quality of our relationships to join us?

Churches which examine such questions with honesty and are willing to do something practical about addressing any concerns that may arise, may find that they move away from decline regardless of the particularities of their theology.