A recent five-year study of growing and shrinking churches in North America has shed light on exactly what attracts and keeps people in the Christian faith – a theology that allows for a literal interpretation of the Bible.
In the study, titled, "Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy," researcher David Haskell and colleagues found that beliefs based on the real bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and the importance of converting people to Christianity – a literal interpretation of the Bible – are strongest in growing churches, and weakest in churches on the decline. In other words, a church’s theology is critical for her survival.
These results suggest that churches that adopt a liberal theology, where Jesus’s bodily resurrection and other Christian truths are seen with skepticism or viewed as allegory, are struggling.
When the researchers asked 2,225 church members to agree or not agree with the statement, "Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb," results were strikingly different among growing and shrinking churches. A full 93 percent of clergy and 83 percent of members at growing churches agreed with the statement. Only 67 percent of members and 56 percent of clergy of shrinking churches agreed with this statement. Fifty-six percent of clergy. Mic drop.
Wait, it gets more interesting. Church members and clergy were asked if they believed that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers." Every clergyperson in growing churches and 90 percent of their members agreed. Now get this: Only 44 percent of clergy at declining churches agreed. But, 80 percent of their congregants believed in God's ability to answer prayers with miracles.
In the declining churches, it seems that it’s the liberal clergy that are leading congregants away from understanding who God is, how and why He acts, and what He can do. It’s as if they have never read the Bible.
Well, maybe they haven’t. Read on.
How many clergy and church members in these churches read the Bible daily? A full 71 percent of clergy in growing churches do, and 46 percent of their members read the Bible once a week. Contrast that with those in shrinking churches, where only 26 percent of clergy read the Bible daily (in a pastor’s job, it’s got to be harder to avoid reading the Bible daily than to read it), and interestingly only 26 percent of their members read the Bible once a week. Clergy leading by example, I suppose.
When Haskell’s group asked clergy if they agreed that it was "very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians," 100 percent of the clergy in growing churches agreed, while only about 50 percent agreed with that statement in declining congregations.
If you want evidence that God is working to preserve the truth of His Son’s literal bodily sacrifice and resurrection, there you have it. Through pastors who view the Bible as an ancient story or myth, watering down Christianity so it isn’t even recognizable any longer, and relegating Jesus to allegory – nothing more than a good example for us – liberal churches are shrinking.
It’s the survival of God’s fittest, the natural selection of churches.