The churches that know are the churches that grow
Knowing what you believe is essential for church development
By Mags Storey | Friday, November 2, 2012
Photo by flamk via Flickr
HAMILTON, ONKevin Flatt can predict, with some degree of certainty, whether a church is likely to grow or shrink. But he warns that's not the same as knowing whether it's healthy or not.
"Churches which grow," he says, "tend to be those that have a very clear idea what they are about, and what distinguishes them from the dominant secular culture. They have high expectations of members. They have a very clear identity that says 'this is what we believe, we are serious about it, and we really believe it.'"
The assistant professor of history at Redeemer University College earned his PhD studying the "survival and decline of the Evangelical identity" of the United Church of Canada, in light of the major drop the denomination has seen in membership numbers. In September, he gave a public lecture entitled "Are the Churches Really Emptying Out?" looking at what can be done about declining church membership for denominations.
While he is quick to add the disclaimer that "with all human interactions there's some level of unpredictability," and adds that there are various competing theories on church decline.
From a historian's perspective "churches who downplay their distinctiveness seem to be struggling the most.
"People assume that if churches become less different from the dominant secular culture it will make them more popular," he says. "But the evidence doesn't bear that out. In fact, the data seems to show the opposite effect. Churches which are more different tend to do better. That's particularly true when it comes to meaning of life questions and moral questions."
Two factors which are important for growth are "strictness" and "conflict," meaning a strong adherence to a church's core valueswhatever those values happen to beand the sense these beliefs make the church different from the surrounding culture.
He says mainline churches that pursue a strategy of accommodating themselves, and either "downplayed, loosened, or abandoned" things which were in conflict with dominant culture tend to lose members.
"They have to have a sense there's something here which I'm not getting elsewhere in society," he says. "If all churches are offering is an echo of what is offering in society or a nice time to get together with friends, those who are looking for something morelooking for meaningare going to pass those churches over."
Flatt has a book coming out next spring called After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the Remaking of the United Church of Canada. While his research focuses on mainline protestant denominations, the factorswhich tend to lead to membership growth or decline remain pretty consistent across various religious and faith traditions.
"When I talk to churches, they sometimes interpret this as saying biblically orthodox churches are more popular. I'm always cautions out about this. The same criteria can apply to groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Muslims.
"I think what I would say to churches is, 'Don't be embarrassed about what you believe, because that won't help you get members. By all means try to communicate to people in terms they can understand and can relate to. But don't hide what you believe. Wear it on your sleeve. Because if people are going to be interested, that's what they're going to be interested in.'"