Do conservative churches grow more than liberal ones?


For years, more progressive or liberal christians have been saying the churches need to change to meet the challenges of modern (or postmodern) society. More conservative christians have argued that we should remain faithful to traditional understandings and practices.

Both sides can tend to welcome studies and surveys that show their approach is working better. And so we have a new report, that Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving.

Depending on your viewpoint, you are probably already keen to read this report or already looking for reasons why it isn’t right. So what is the latest?

The latest (Canadian) study

In December last year, David Haskel and colleagues published Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy, which provided the basis of the Washington Post article (see also here for another summary).

Over two thousand attendees and 29 clergy at 22 churches in Ontario were surveyed, and when all the analysis was done, they found that the theological conservatism of clergy and attendees was a predictor of growing churches, while theological liberalism predicted declining attendances.

Several conservative christian sources (e.g. New Study Ties Church Attendance to ‘Conservative Theology’) picked up on the research, saying that they expect God to honour them because they believe they are being more faithful. But other christians saw problems with the conclusions; for example, one pastor (Liberal churches are not in decline) said the results weren’t representative.

Looking closer

I can see some difficulties with the conclusions that some people are drawing from this study.

It is just one study

The study was undertaken in one area. The results will apply to that area, but it isn’t clear how well they can be extrapolated and generalised. Also, it only surveyed “mainline” denominations, that is traditional denominations such as Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and United churches, and didn’t examine Catholic, Pentecostal, independent and house churches, etc. Nevertheless, the study is a valuable piece of evidence.

What is “success”?

This study has measures success by attendance numbers, but this raises some obvious questions.

Are numbers a measure of church success? I don’t think so, and it is hard to imagine Jesus thinking so. I would want to ask questions like: Is the church making a difference in the world, through new conversions, care for the poor and marginalised at home and abroad, and lives lived in a way that honours Jesus? The study doesn’t appear to address such matters, which are difficult if not impossible to measure.

Where do the numbers come from? Is the church making new converts, or are the numbers the result of a higher birth rate and/or transfer growth from other congregations?

Defining conservative theology

Haskell says that clergy and attendees “from the growing mainline churches held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading.” Some of the factors that are included here were:

  • Growing churches think evangelism is more important than do declining churches.
  • People in growing churches read the Bible more.
  • They are more likely to believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.
  • They are more likely to believe that God may answer prayer for healing.
  • People at growing churches are more likely to believe (at least moderately) that “only those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ will receive eternal life”.

Growing church attendees are twice as likely to be under 60, and their churches are more likely to have modern music in their services.

I find this evidence a little misleading. I wouldn’t call myself “conservative” but I believe all but the last of those five points. (I am not under 60 but I do prefer more modern music!). I think many christians who would think of themselves as progressive, charismatic, anabaptist or radical would be the same. To really distinguish christian conservatism probably requires questions on inerrancy, the role of women and probably also political conservatism. I don’t know if these views were measured.

Thus, I think extrapolating beyond mainline congregations could be very misleading.

Other factors?

It is obvious that these questions are complex, with many factors possibly influencing the results. In the study, “other factors were controlled for in multivariate analysis”, which should make these findings robust (without negating other possible factors). Haskell does address this, saying “one might venture that it is the strength of belief, not the specifics of belief, that is the real cause of growth. …. Yet different beliefs, though equally strong, produce different outcomes.”

Other factors that inhibit or promote growth have been researched by church growth experts. For instance this commentator lists these characteristics of growing churches: they have an intentional message, they focus on relationships, they have long range plans, are decisive and take risks, and they have good leaders. It would be easy to find other church growth strategists who would give you a different list. Were any of these factors important in the churches in Ontario?

Conclusions from the scientific study of religion

The motivations and causes of church attendance have been studied scientifically (via psychology, anthropology and neuroscience), and throw some light on this matter. It turns out that “strict churches” (which generally means conservative churches) tend to grow more than other churches because their strictness discourages members who lack commitment, and therefore take the advantages of church membership without offering much in return. Without these “free riders”, the church will have a strong focus and high level of commitment, so it is more likely to try to make converts and will be more attractive to outsiders.

So, do conservative churches grow more than liberal ones?

It seems the answer is complex. Yes, they do tend to grow faster, for a range of reasons which includes, but is not limited to, their theology. And on the evidence here, it isn’t necessarily ultra-conservative theology that makes a difference, but what may be regarded as “traditional” christian teachings and practices (prayer, Bible reading, Jesus, the resurrection, making converts).

But it would be good to know which churches are making a greater difference, spiritually and practically, in their neighbourhood, and in the world.

This is a freely available photo, but I can’t find a record of where I obtained it from now.

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