Amid the decades-long decline in mainline Protestantism in North America, researchers in Canada recently found an “elusive sample” of congregations whose growth has bucked the trend.

The key characteristic these exceptional Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United churches had in common? Evangelical theology.

With fewer evangelicals and more secular surroundings than their brethren in the United States, Canada’s mainline denominations collectively lost half of their members over the past 50 years. Last year, a team of sociologists suggested that conservative theological beliefs—including emphasis on Scripture as the “actual word of God” and belief in the power of prayer—may be the saving grace keeping attendance up at 9 of 22 Ontario churches studied.

“Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” said David Millard Haskell, the study’s lead author. “But if we are talking solely about which belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”

The mainline congregations that kept growing by at least 2 percent a year emphasized markers typically associated with evangelical beliefs. For example, such churches described evangelism as the main mission of their church, were more committed to personal spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, and saw Scripture as a singular authority.

Haskell’s study was one of the most popular papers published in the Review of Religious Research last year. His findings among Canadian churches echo trends that researchers in the US have been tracking for decades.

“Clearer theology leads to clearer practice. You know what you’re hanging on to,” said Jennifer McKinney, a Seattle Pacific University sociologist who studied mainline renewal. “Conservative churches are the ones that grow, and that’s still happening in the US.”

The new research, conducted by a team out of Wilfrid Laurier University and Redeemer University College in Ontario, indicated that among growing mainline churches, 93 percent of pastors and 83 percent of attendees agreed that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb,” compared with only 56 percent of pastors and 67 percent of attendees in struggling ones.

The thriving congregations were also more likely to affirm that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers” than were congregations in decline (pastors: 100% vs. 44%; attendees: 90% vs. 80%). Across survey measures, pastors of churches with declining attendance were the least conservative.

Article continues below

Rodney Stark, codirector of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, noted similar findings in the US. His data shows that “there are pastors who are conservative, and their congregations are growing while their denominations decline,” the sociologist said.

Conservative theology fosters greater commitment, which leads to a greater sense of personal happiness and stronger bonds between church members, the Canadian researchers concluded. Christians at Ontario’s thriving mainline churches—on average, significantly younger than attendees in their denominations as a whole, with two-thirds under age 60—proved to be more evangelical in belief and in practice than fellow mainline attendees.

However, David Roozen argues that given the concentrated sample of 22 congregations, the researchers’ conclusions do not apply more broadly. Roozen, an expert on national religious trends and mainline Protestantism at the Hartford Institute of Religious Research, says other factors such as age and the use of contemporary worship may account in part for the appeal.

According to Roozen, the study’s analysis predicts the traits of individuals, not churches themselves. So the data shows that “people who are conservative go to growing congregations, not that growing congregations are conservative,” he said.

Roozen’s own research through the Faith Communities Today study, which includes more than 5,000 mainline churches in the US, has found that “theology had no effect.” Congregations on both theological extremes were more likely to still be growing.

Haskell says liberal and conservative doctrines necessarily produce different outcomes. “All the growing church clergy in our study, because of their theological outlook, held the conviction that it was ‘very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,’ ” he said. “Conversely, half the clergy at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it was not desirable to convert non-Christians. . . . Which do you think is more likely to generate church growth?”

Like Stark and other fellow researchers tracking denominational decline, Roozen observed how theological shifts make it harder for mainline churches to assert their value over non-religious progressive worldviews. “If you’ve got a younger generation that are asking, ‘What good is religion?’—what do liberal Protestants say to them?” Roozen noted that without focused teachings on the uniqueness of Jesus or belief in heaven and hell, for example, mainline congregations find themselves in competition with humanitarian and secular groups.

Article continues below

“The challenge to liberal Protestantism is not conservative Protestantism,” he said. “It’s secularity.”

While the Canada study offers a new and rather unexpected source of inspiration for Christians concerned about declining church attendance, discussion over the counterintuitive appeal of conservative theology in a secularizing culture dates back to at least the 1970s. Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, and the related research that ensued, suggested that the “strictness” of conservative religious communities corresponded to church growth.

Since then, Kelley’s notion has been challenged by demographic analysis—including family size among evangelicals—and conflicting trends. Critics have asked: If conservative theology is such a major draw, what explains the megachurch boom around pastors like Joel Osteen? Or the recent record decline among Southern Baptists?

Roger Finke, the sociologist who directs the Association of Religion Data Archives, found that even conservative denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention and Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, have had to continue to innovate to maintain their vitality.

“In short, the conservative groups often retain the core teachings that are valued so highly by the membership. But members want much more than the retention of valued teachings,” he said. “In areas that are not core teachings, churches must continually search for innovative ways to reach, activate, and serve members.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.