A new study of Ontario churches suggests that orthodox theology, and innovative styles of worship and communication, are among the most common ingredients in growing congregations. Perhaps more striking is that these patterns of growth are happening even in certain mainline congregations in Canada, a country generally regarded as more liberal and secular than much of the United States.

Canada’s largest mainline denominations have seen their total membership drop by half since the 1960s. The Canadian population has almost doubled over the same time period. Yet a handful of mainline churches are growing in Ontario. What sets them apart? The Guardian newspaper summarized the study’s key findings:

  • Only 50 percent of clergy from declining churches agreed it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” compared to 100 percent of clergy from growing churches.
  • 71 percent of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19 percent from declining churches.
  • 46 percent of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26 percent from declining churches.
  • 93 percent of clergy and 83 percent of worshipers from growing churches agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.” This compared with 67 percent of worshippers and 56 percent of clergy from declining churches.
  • 100 percent of clergy and 90 percent of worshipers in growing churches agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers,” compared with 80 percent of worshipers and 44 percent of clergy from declining churches.

It is sad to see clergy in the declining churches doubting the most basic points of orthodoxy. Not only is orthodox doctrine (such as the Resurrection) true, but when you make it optional, there’s little reason why people would keep coming to church. I don’t need the church to tell me to be nice and tolerant, and to otherwise believe what I want. I do need the church to keep reminding me of the stunning, compelling truths of the gospel.

The growing churches had lower average ages of attendees, and featured more contemporary worship styles. They understand the urgency of evangelism, and presumably some clergy and congregants are doing their part to invite friends and neighbors to church, and to tell them about the good news of salvation through Christ.

Sociologist David Haskell told Maclean’s:

“[W]hen 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.”

I am sure that the pastors and members would also insist that their churches grew because of what God did.

The study should give some hope for the mainline denominations across the English-speaking world, which have all seen massive rates of decline over the past five decades. Decline is not inevitable, especially at the congregational level.

But we should also remember that orthodox theology is no guarantee of growth. The turn toward uniformly traditional theology in the Southern Baptist Convention, beginning in the late 1970s, presumably staved off some of the precipitous decline seen in more liberal denominations. But as a denomination, the SBC is also in a pattern of long-term slow decline, in spite of its orthodoxy. And I am confident that many traditionalist pastors might look at the Canadian study and wonder, I’m preaching the Word. Why are we not growing?

There could be many reasons. Some of them could have to do with a failure to update styles of communication and worship. Some might have to do with crippling conflict in the church, ineffective personnel, or passivity about evangelism.

Even though we see convincing patterns of the connection between orthodoxy and growth, however, we know that true, healthy church growth is something that happens in God’s timing and by God’s blessing. Two different churches might employ virtually identical styles, with orthodox teaching, but only one might grow, while the other stagnates. Why this happens, only God may know, and pastors certainly should not take decline as prima facie evidence that they are doing something wrong.

What should we take from this study, then? Although I am sure there are exceptions, the connections between unorthodox theology and decline seem clear. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, why bother getting out of bed on Sunday?

But communication and worship style need to be flexible, because of the urgency of the gospel. Why feel committed to a “traditional” style that was itself once new, in an earlier time of your church’s history? Orthodoxy is not optional, but style and methods are. If you’re not making routine, incremental adjustments in methods of ministry, you’re probably in trouble as a church.

Finally, orthodox churches still need to leave the results up to God. The point, after all, is not teeming crowds. The church’s real business is the conversion of unbelievers, the discipling of believers, the proclamation of the Word, and the glory of God.

See also David Haskell’s editorial on the study, “A Recipe for Church Growth,” in the Toronto Sun.