In 1972 Dean Kelley stunned many in the church world when he published WHY CONSERVATIVE CHURCHES ARE GROWING: A Study in Sociology of Religion with a new Preface (Rose, No. 11). Two factors led to people being surprised by this book. One, at that time many thought the church was nearly dead, and now they were being told that some churches were actually growing. The second reason this book surprised many is that Kelley was a leader in the National Council of Churches, an organization mostly composed of liberal and moderate churches.
Since the book was first released it has been applauded by conservative Christian leaders and challenged by liberals. The conservatives have pointed to its findings and felt their approach to the Scriptures and ministry had been validated. Liberals claimed the findings were wrong and other things, such as birth rates, accounted for the growth among conservative churches. However, a more recent study has again confirmed Kelley's earlier finding that theologically conservative churches led by theologically conservative pastors is a key to growing churches.
A major five year study of churches in Canada involved a survey of 29 clergy and 2,255 lay attendees of mainline churches in Canada. The results are quite telling. In the growing churches there was an emphasis on prayer. 71 percent of the clergy in growing churches read their Bibles daily while only 19 percent of the clergy in declining churches did the same. There was a similar difference in attitudes towards evangelism. 100 percent of the clergy in growing churches agreed that it was very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians. Only 50 percent of the clergy in declining churches felt this was important.
Conservative Christian teachings about the basic articles of faith, the authority of the Scriptures, the exclusivity of Christianity, and other aspects of conservative theology were stressed in growing churches. These churches also had an emphasis on youth groups, a commitment to evangelism, and enjoyed a higher presence of young families.
Another interesting find in the study was that if a pastor of one of these conservative, growing churches left for another church it would also begin to grow even if it had not experienced growth in the past. This pointed out how critical it is for the pastor to hold to a conservative theology and the impact such pastors have on churches.
This is not to say that all conservative churches are growing, but growing churches share these values and theology. The same is true in the United States. Where you find a growing church you are apt to find people holding to conservative theology and values and putting them into practice.
While there isn't space in this blog to discuss all aspects of this study, one thing is evident. Churches do not have to water down their theology to attract people. People are not looking for a watered-down theology and churches that really don't believe anything. They are looking for churches that are not afraid to stand for the things they believe in, a theology that will provide them with a firm foundation for their lives, and a relationship with God that will sustain them. They are looking for churches that can provide solid answers to their spiritual questions and churches that can help teach their children good morals and values.
There are many things a church can do to become more attractive to non-Christians but compromising biblical teaching isn't one of them. In fact, doing so will cause more people to leave a church than it will to attract people to the church.