It’s Not Just Strength of Belief That Matters
THE SUBSTANCE OF DOCTRINE IS VITAL
It isn’t news that mainline Protestant congregations are numerically shrinking, but once again, research confirms that it’s the underlying theology of these churches that is the reason for the lack of growth. I say once again, because these observations are not new. the Barna Group has on several occasions highlighted this. Ross Douthat’s 2012 book, Bad Religion also profiled this trend. Further evidence of this is found David Millard Haskell’s opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News, Why Conservative Churches Grow and Liberal Churches Shrink. But it is opinion supported by research.
Haskell and his colleagues did survey-based research on the beliefs of congregants in the various types of churches, and the results are not surprising to theological conservatives: doctrine matters. What you believe changes behavior, it influences your life, and causes you to live differently. He notes:
We found, without exception, the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs, such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologically conservative and the declining church clergy the least.
The research was greeted unenthusiastically by those on the theological left, as they pushed back on the notion that content of belief was determinative. They suggest, rather, that strength of belief is what is important. Looked at solely from the standpoint of church growth, however, the implications of this are clear. If you believe that conversion is a non-essential, you will not be particularly concerned to preach a gospel of Jesus as the only way of salvation. Conservatives preach this gospel. but, “half the clergy at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians.”
The conclusions to draw from this are not that church growth is the end goal, and that is why treating the Bible as God’s actual words is important. Rather, those who take this view are focusing on transcendent and eternal truths, things that matter beyond this life. If one focuses only on a gospel of social justice or political action, the more effective place to do that is within a political party. In some cases it seems that mainline churches have become just that – political action committees with a side of well-being by sharing these convictions with others. But what is conspicuously absent is a measure of truth.
It is a frequently repeated canard that theological conservatives care only about the spiritual, and do nothing to address the pressing physical needs of humanity. This is simply not true. Faith-based ministries abound that do just these things, provide food, clothing, medical attention, and the gospel. It is also the case that strength of faith is tied to charitable amounts. The reason for this is because the object of faith for committed Christians is the Son of God.
Paul said it bluntly to the Corinthian church: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, to disbelieve this central truth of Christianity, while at the same time being part of a church is an exercise in futility. Conversely, an affirmation of the resurrection is a truth that matters, not only for all the implications of this life, but for the one to come. “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”