On 16 November Maclean’s Magazine reported on a study to be released in December by two Canadian academics examining decline and growth in Canadian churches.
The Maclean’s report offers more information from the study than the brief Globe and Mail story to which I responded on 19 November: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/church-in-decline/
In the Maclean’s piece writers Brian Bethune and Patricia Treble outline the “conservative” beliefs that the study apparently demonstrates are essential to a growing church:
Are all religions equally good and true? Not according to 53 per cent of the congregants of growing churches, although 70 per cent of declining church attendees accept the idea. Sixty per cent of growing churches declare that “only those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ will receive eternal life”; just 15 per cent of the declining accept that. Only 16 per cent of declining congregations strongly believe that the Bible has no “wrong or misguided” teachings compared to 47 per cent of growing congregations.
Bethune and Trible go on to make an interesting point about leadership in both declining and growing churches:
In both groups, the clergy express their congregants’ beliefs even more strongly, meaning the arc of conservative to liberal runs from growing clergy to growing congregants to declining congregants to declining clergy.
Nowhere do clergy matter more than in their most deeply held attitudes. Sociologists who study religion debate whether the decline in church attendance is a matter of demand—fewer moderns want it—or a matter of supply, with would-be Christians not finding the faith they want. “When we asked clergy why they thought churches grew or declined, those in the shrinking churches replied decline was because of socio-economic factors, the influence of secular society. Clergy in expanding churches said growth was because of what they and their members did.” And what they preached, adds Haskell: “Ideas have consequences.”
Growing churches do things differently than declining churches. Growing churches and their leaders also appear to hold certain beliefs in common.
So is it beliefs/”ideas” that are the true indicator of likely growth or decline in a Christian church? Are clergy in declining churches blaming “socio-economic factors, the influence of secular society” for their decline simply in order to avoid facing the fact that their message has no appeal?
Would churches magically start to grow if clergy of declining churches changed their beliefs and signed on to the Creed that apparently characterizes growing churches?
Is this the new creed for church growth?
- all religions are not equally good and true
- “only those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ will receive eternal life”
- the Bible has no “wrong or misguided” teachings
In the current political climate, these seem sad reductionist convictions majoring in exclusion. The world is shifting around us in ways unimaginable twenty years ago. Whether we like it or not, the settled certainties that seemed to hold even two decades ago are being eroded.
Is it possible that, in the face of uncertainty and confusion, many people uncomfortable with nuance are seeking a sense of safety and security in places that offer compelling worship combined with solid and simple convictions based on exclusion of the other?
Fighting a rearguard action against the shifting sands of culture may feel appealing and may fill churches in the short term. But this may not be the best strategy for reaching a wider culture that is moving increasingly towards ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty, and diversity.
One day we are going to have to come out from behind our fortress and encounter the world as it is. We are going to be forced to acknowledge the validity of our neighbour’s faith, even though that neighbour may not express their faith in precisely our terms. We are going to have to see that the sacred texts other people honour carry every bit as much power for them as ours do for us. We are going to have to face the fact that some of our doctrines and the way they have been expressed pose legitimate challenges that make them difficult for sincere people who were not raised in the culture of our religious belief system.
If the desire to engage seriously and humbly with the world beyond the church means the church experiences a period of decline, this may simply be a reality we need to embrace.