Many North American churches are in a state of free fall when it comes to congregant numbers, but some are defying this fate with growing numbers. Why certain churches grow while others stagnate or die remains the topic of heated debate.
Dr. David Haskell, Associate Professor of Digital Media and Journalism/Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, wanted to explore this further after observing that the most expensive marketing campaign ever undertaken by a Mainline Protestant church in Canada – the United Church’s multimillion-dollar Wonder Café campaign –had virtually no effect on congregation numbers.
“It made me wonder, are any Mainline churches succeeding, and if they are, what are they doing?” explains Dr. Haskell, who decided, along with co-authors Stephanie Burgoyne and Kevin Flatt, to survey 2000 congregants from Canada’s four Mainline Protestant denominations—Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and United. From this larger sample of participants the researchers drew 70 new members of growing Mainline churches for a unique analysis, published in the Canadian Review of Sociology.
From their interviews with the 70 new members of the growing churches, Haskell and colleagues came to identify the reasons they chose their new spiritual homes. Key to choosing the growing churches that they did is that those churches meet specific needs. According to Dr. Haskell humans have two competing needs: one for inclusion within a group; and one to be distinct from other individuals. He and his team found that the study’s growing Mainline Protestant churches were able to meet these dual needs.
The two main reasons that churchgoers identified for choosing one church over another – namely friendly congregations and quality preaching – came as no surprise to Haskell and his co-authors. But the third most popular reason caught the researchers’ attention: members were attracted by a conservative theology.
These churches tended to emphasize conservative biblical interpretations. Typically, Mainline churches in Canada stress a more metaphorical interpretation of scripture. However, the style of interpretation in these growing churches gives attendees a sense of differentiation from liberal Christian communities and society at large society, while at the same time bonding like-minded congregants together.
“According to the new members, part of the draw of their new churches was that they were atypical, and they stressed things like the authority of scripture, and a god who’s active in people’s lives,” says Haskell.
By putting forward atypical, more conservative theological views, these churches were more appealing to new congregants.
“It binds them because they all agree, but it also makes them feel that they are different, and it’s because they are at odds with what would be popular culture.”