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Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review 2017, 00:00 1–30
doi: 10.1093/socrel/srx044
Secularization and Attribution: How Mainline
Protestant Clergy and Congregants Explain
Church Growth and Decline
Kevin N. Flatt*
Redeemer University College
D. Millard Haskell
Wilfrid Laurier University—Brantford Campus
Stephanie Burgoyne
Wilfrid Laurier University—Brantford Campus
This article analyzes explanations for growth and decline given by 22 clergy and 128 congregants from
21 mainline Protestant churches in Canada, including both growing and declining congregations. Both
clergy and congregants attributed growth and decline to a wide range of external and internal causes,
but people in declining churches were more likely to attribute them to external factors outside churches’
control, while people in growing churches tended to attribute them to the characteristics of the churches
themselves. Both groups overwhelmingly relied on human explanations rather than supernatural ones,
with some exceptions from growing church participants. We argue that these results align with the
predictions of attribution theory and also reflect a high degree of internal secularization that is more
advanced in the declining churches. We discuss the role of theological factors in these differences and
suggest possible implications for understanding church growth and decline.
Keywords: Canada; Protestantism; mainline Protestants; secularization; church growth and decline.
While many researchers have empirically investigated the phenomena of secularization, church decline, and church growth, few researchers have explored the
explanations given by the members of these churches themselves for why churches
grow or decline. In this study, we asked clergy and congregants from both growing
*Direct correspondence to Kevin N. Flatt, Redeemer University College, 777 Garner Road East,
Ancaster, ON, Canada L9K 1J4. E-mail:
© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association
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and declining mainline Protestant churches in Canada why they thought churches
grow or decline. Our comparative analysis results in two main findings. First, we
show that people in declining churches were more likely than people in growing
churches to attribute decline and growth to external factors, that is, factors outside
the control of churches. In the discussion, we show that this finding is consistent
with the predictions of attribution theory (i.e., those in declining churches have an
incentive to blame outside forces, those in growing churches to take credit themselves), but that these different explanatory strategies also may, in turn, promote
actions that lead to growth or decline, and so become self-fulfilling prophecies.
We also note that the difference in explanatory strategies resembles the infamous
secularization debate between proponents of the classical secularization paradigm
and proponents of the supply-side model. Second, we show that the large majority
of participants provided purely human explanations for growth and decline—with
the notable exception of some people in growing churches, mostly clergy, who
sometimes invoked theological and supernatural explanations for growth. We
argue that this tendency to appeal to human explanations is evidence of a degree
of internal secularization of both kinds of churches, albeit one that people in the
growing churches have resisted to some extent. We conclude by showing how
theological differences between the two groups help to explain differences in their
explanatory strategies, and speculate that more conservative theological beliefs
are linked with various types of secularization resistance in the growing churches.
This study takes place at the intersection of three areas of research: secularization, church growth and decline, and attribution theory.
The classical secularization paradigm posits that there is a general tendency
for the social influence of religion, religious behavior, and/or religious belief to
decline as societies modernize (for an overview, see Gorksi 2000; Tschannen
1991). In many versions of the paradigm, there is a prediction that, other things
being equal, religion will decline (however this is defined) in the modern world.
The relatively secular and highly modernized societies of Western Europe provide
the archetypal case study for this approach, with the United States and its comparatively high levels of religious participation serving as an exception requiring
special explanation. In the classical paradigm, decline is not a result of actions
taken or not taken by religious groups, but a result of much larger social forces
and long-term trends in the face of which churches and similar groups are largely
helpless. Religious organizations can do little to ignite interest because these
external forces have eroded people’s religious desires. While this paradigm has
roots going back to the origins of social science, it continues to have vigorous and
capable defenders today (e.g., Bruce 2011).
In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the classical paradigm sustained energetic criticism, much of it from scholars advocating the “supply-side
model” of religious change (Finke and Stark 2005 [first edition 1992]; Stark 1999;
Stark and Finke 2000; Stark and Iannaconne 1994). “Supply-siders” introduced
the conceptual model of the religious economy, in which various religious groups
(or “firms”) compete to offer religious services to the population. According to
this model, differing levels of religious participation in different societies reflect
not a long-term trend of decline caused by modernization, but rather the degree
of effective competition in their religious markets. The United States has higher
rates of religious participation because it has a highly competitive free market in
religion; most Western European societies, in contrast, are less religious because
they have ineffective state-supported religious monopolies with little competition. In contrast to the classical secularization paradigm, the supply-side model
sees religious groups (like churches) as the key agents whose actions collectively
lead to higher or lower rates of religious participation for a society as a whole.
Under competitive conditions, religious groups that are effective at tapping into
the latent demand for religion in a society grow; ineffective ones shrink. If a religious organization finds itself in decline it is not because people are not interested
in religion per se, it is because people are not interested in the version, type, or
style of religion that particular organization is supplying.
As might be expected, advocates of these apparently incompatible approaches
have repeatedly clashed (e.g., Bruce 2001; Stark 1999). This debate has also
played out on a smaller scale with respect to particular societies and cases; for
a nuanced recent reprise of this debate in a Canadian context, for example, see
Thiessen (2012) and the reply by Bibby (2012). More recent work on secularization has attempted to transcend the debate between the classical secularization paradigm and the supply-side model by identifying the problems, and partial
applicability of both (e.g., Casanova 2006; Gorski 2000), or have proposed alternative narratives for making sense of various forms and instances of secularization
(e.g., Berger 1999; Brown 2001; Smith 2003; Taylor 2007). Nevertheless, these
two grand approaches still exert an important influence on the field and continue
to serve as a backdrop or foil for more recent work.
Operating within, and sometimes outside, these two grand theories is a
body of church growth research that attempts to determine the specific reasons
some churches grow in membership, attendance, and participation, while others
decline. Most often Protestant denominations and congregations have been the
site of this research and researchers have presented the findings in categories of
winners and losers. The accumulated evidence shows that theologically conservative Protestant churches in the United States and Canada are more likely to be
the site of numerical increase than Protestant churches that are more theologically liberal (e.g., Bibby 1987, 1993, 2002, 2004, 2011, 2012; Bouma 1979; Finke
and Stark 2005; Hadaway 2011; Haskell et al. 2016b; Iannaccone 1994; Kelley
1972; Reimer 2003; Tamney and Johnson 1998). While most researchers accept
this general pattern, the factors that underlie it remain the topic of heated debate.
Some researchers have concluded that conservative Protestant theology itself
is a key driver of church growth (Finke and Stark 2001, 2005:277–8; Haskell
et al. 2016b; McKinney and Finke 2002; Stark and Finke 2000), by providing
a unifying mission, establishing an agreed-upon external source of religious
authority (i.e., the Bible), motivating recruitment efforts, or some combination of the above. More common among researchers is the claim that the high
demands conservative churches place on their members, and not primarily their
theological positioning, is what drives growth. This notion, broadly termed the
“strictness thesis,” originated almost 50 years ago with Kelley’s (1972) book Why
Conservative Churches Are Growing. Two decades later it received empirical support and further theoretical development from Iannaccone (1994). Iannacone
emphasized the role of strictness in eliminating “free riders” in favor of committed members who produce the greatest rewards and benefits for the group. Since
the publication of Iannaccone’s version of the strictness thesis, several studies
have supported its major tenets (e.g., Finke et al. 2006; Iannaccone et al. 1995;
Scheitle and Finke 2008) while findings from other research have called its absolute validity into question (e.g., Tamney 2005; Tamney and Johnson 1997, 1998).
Though they disagree about the root cause, implicit in the conclusions of
researchers who identify theology or strictness as a predictor of growth is the
idea that internal factors, or factors within the control of church leaders, greatly
influence whether congregations grow or not. Such a position fits closely with the
supply-side or religious economy model of religion discussed earlier. This model
assumes a fairly constant level of demand for religion in any given society and
explains the success or failure of churches to attract people in terms of the characteristics and actions of the churches themselves. Indeed, this conviction appears
to underlie much church growth research. As a result, supply-siders continue to
clash with adherents of the classical secularization paradigm when examining
the reasons and long-term opportunities for church growth. Recently, sociologists
Thiessen (2012) and Bibby (2012) have debated the validity of the supply-side
model versus the secularization paradigm for Canadian churches. Both acknowledge that “marginal affiliates”—Canadians who identify with a religion but are not
actively involved—represent the pool of candidates from which church growth
could most likely arise. However, Thiessen (2012; cf. 2015) has little confidence
in the effectiveness of supply-side factors and remains pessimistic that such factors could move marginals from inactive to active religious participation. From
his research with marginals, he concludes that preferences for choices other than
religious participation will continue to be given priority in their lives regardless of
what churches in their communities do (Thiessen 2012; cf. 2015).
Conversely, Bibby (2011, 2012) argues that Thiessen underestimates the
potential growth effect of changes in a church’s approach. While not claiming
that improved performance by religious groups would guarantee that marginal
affiliates would join, Bibby does argue that “positive performances tend to be necessary causes” or preconditions for marginal affiliates’ reactivation (2012: 93). To
back his claim Bibby cites his “considerable national survey data for both adults
and teenagers spanning 1995 through 2008” (94) showing that two-thirds of marginal affiliates would consider “being more involved in a religious group if they
found it to be worthwhile for [themselves] and [their] family” (98). Admitting
that not every person who says they are receptive to more religious participation
would follow through, he temperately asserts “If some suppliers step up, some
marginal affiliates can be expected to respond” (Bibby 2012: 94). In Canada, the
debate over the causes and possibilities of church growth thus intersects with
divisions between supply-siders and classical secularization theorists.
A third area of research that is relevant to this study is the literature on organizational decline and, in particular, on how people in declining organizations
explain that decline, which began in the mid-1970s (Cameron et al. 1987; for
examples see also Borins 2002; Chen and Hambrick 2012; Freeman and Hannan
1975). Of most interest for this article is the subset of that research that turned to
attribution theory to analyze individuals’ causal explanations for organizational
successes or failures (Heider 1958; Kelley 1973; Reisenzein and Rudolph 2008;
Weiner 2008). Attribution theory argues that people have an overall tendency to
attribute failure and other negative outcomes to external causes (i.e., causes over
which an individual has little control) and success to internal causes (i.e., causes
controlled by the individual) (Bettman and Weitz 1983; Heider 1958; Kelley
1973). In business, for example, corporate leaders tend to attribute company
successes to decisions they have made while they blame downturns in company
performance on external market forces (Bettman and Weitz 1983; Schaffer 2002;
Vaara et al. 2014). Researchers employing the theory speculate that attributing
failures to external causes and successes to internal causes allows people to maintain self-esteem and enjoy a sense of control over circumstances; for leaders of
organizations, such behavior also allows them to better keep the respect of subordinates (Bettman and Weitz 1983; Salancik and Meindl 1984; Staw et al. 1983).
Out of all major religious groups in North America, mainline Protestants
probably feel the problems of organizational decline, the challenges of church
growth, and the pressures of secularization most keenly. In Canada, mainline
Protestant denominations have suffered a sustained numerical decline since
1960s, contributing to an overall decline in religious participation and affiliation
in Canada (e.g., Bibby 1993). The United Church of Canada, for example, has
lost more than half its membership since its peak in 1965, and more than half its
Sunday service attendance since record keeping began in 1977 (United Church
of Canada 2011). While researchers have occasionally noted the views of individual mainline Protestant clergy and lay people about what drives people away
from or toward churches (Bibby 1993:75, 147, 295), to our knowledge, only two
prior studies, have explored this question in more detail—Wellman (2008) and
McMullin (2013).
Wellman (2008) compared the traits of clergy and congregants in the
American Pacific Northwest from 24 of the area’s fastest growing conservative
Protestant churches and 10 liberal Protestant churches with “stable congregational numbers, finances and church identity” (45)—although he notes that all
but two of the latter group were in a state of decline by the end of his study (46).
While participants’ explanations of church growth or decline were not a key focus
of Wellman’s research, on occasion he summarizes instances where participants of
his study commented on what they believed were the key causes of church growth
or decline. Some liberal Protestant leaders explained their denominational
decline in terms of broad social factors outside their control, “complain[ing] that
[people in their part of the US] had no tradition of church going and tended to
discount organized religion per se” (Wellman 2008:49). Conversely, leaders in the
conservative Protestant churches “would often comment with excitement about
untapped opportunities in the region. The reality of the region’s open religious
market was not so much a problem as an opportunity” (Wellman 2008:49). In
these contrasting comments, we see the liberal church leaders’ appeal to external
factors to explain church decline and the conservative leaders’ focus on “markets”
that they believe they will be able to influence.
Why do liberals avoid market-related themes? Wellman (2008) theorizes
that, in part, it is liberal Protestants’ overarching contempt for unbridled capitalism and “corporate America” that makes them abhor any religious activities
that resemble business processes. Especially abhorrent is the act of soliciting new
“customers” (i.e., church members). For liberals “there is great resistance to ‘campaigns’ for new members in part because of market overtones” (197), and they critiqued conservative Protestants as being “too market conscious” (81). Ultimately,
this ethos causes liberal churches to “struggle with recruitment, in part, because
they are not always sure they want to grow” (205).
In contrast, Wellman notes that conservative Protestants in his study believed
they could develop innovative strategies so that their “product” (orthodox
Christianity) would achieve better market penetration. And while evangelicals
willingly adapt the delivery or “packaging” of their religious product, they will
not adapt its core content. That is, they will not compromise their claim that
Christianity is “True” and salvation comes through following Jesus alone. In fact,
evangelical pastors and lay people both suggested to Wellman that “the fact that
liberals do not voice this exclusive claim is the source of liberal decline” (2008:82).
While churchgoers’ perspectives on church growth and decline were not the
focus of Wellman’s study, they were the focus of McMullin’s (2013) research.
McMullin surveyed clergy and members of 16 declining Protestant congregations
in Canada and the United States; 8 were mainline Protestant and 8 were conservative Protestant. As a control group, he also surveyed two growing conservative Protestant congregations, one in Canada and one in the United States.
His primary intent was to examine and categorize the reasons respondents from
the 16 churches gave for the decline of their home church and churches more
generally. He also compared the responses of those from the declining churches
to those from the two growing churches. He concluded that “the pastors and
members of the declining congregations attribute the decline in membership and
attendance primarily to external social change over which they have no control,”
while “instead of blaming the changed social environment,” respondents from
the growing congregations reported “intentionally mak[ing] internal changes in
order to remain religiously meaningful and relevant” (McMullin 2013:58). This
finding is clearly compatible with Wellman’s (2008) observations about the tendencies of those in his stable or declining liberal mainline Protestant churches to
see decline as something imposed on them by external factors, and of those in his
growing conservative Protestant churches to see the external environment as an
opportunity for growth to be exploited through internal changes.
This article is most similar to McMullin’s in that its main focus is the explanations that mainline Protestant clergy and congregants offer for church growth and
decline. We build on and go beyond McMullin’s work through a more robust comparison of the views of people in growing and declining churches. While McMullin
had only two growing churches to compare to his 16 declining churches, our study
has 8 growing churches to compare to 13 declining ones. Unlike McMullin’s study,
we also specifically investigate people’s explanations of why churches grow, as well
as why they decline. Because of the mix of growing and declining churches in
our sample, we are able to undertake a detailed comparative analysis of explanations of growth and decline from people in both growing and declining churches.
Although we find that people in both kinds of churches gave a variety of explanations for growth and decline, we also find, as did McMullin and Wellman, that
people in declining churches were more likely to blame church decline on external factors, that is, factors in the society outside of their control, while people in
growing churches were more likely to see decline as a result of features of declining churches themselves. Going further, we provide evidence that this pattern
also appears when people explain church growth. Finally, we show that nearly
all of our participants favored exclusively human explanations for growth and
decline (rather than supernatural ones), although some participants from growing
churches differed from this general tendency. In the discussion section, we explore
the potential reasons for, and implications of, these patterns.
The four largest mainline Protestant denominations in Canada are the United
Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church
in Canada, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (“evangelical” here
is used in the traditional German sense as basically meaning “Protestant”). As a
group, they tend to share a similar religious outlook, and people switching churches
are much more likely to switch among this group than into, or from, other denominations (e.g. Bibby 1999, 2004; Haskell et al. 2016a). We sought to recruit about
10 growing and 10 declining churches from these four denominations in southern
Ontario—a region that contains about a third of Canada’s population. To clearly
distinguish between growing and declining churches, we classified a church as
“growing” if it could demonstrate from its records an average 2% or greater annual
growth in attendance over the 10-year period ending in 2013, and “declining” if it
had an average 2% or greater annual decrease in attendance over the same period.
Churches that had undergone an amalgamation in that period were disqualified.
Using a combination of calls to denominational offices and calls directly to
churches, we ultimately recruited 21 churches as participants in the portion of the
study covered by this paper. Given the ongoing numerical decline of these denominations, finding growing mainline churches was quite difficult, as American researchers
have also noted (Wenger et al. 2006). Thus, we had to rely on referrals from already
recruited churches (of both types) to identify and recruit enough growing churches.
Ultimately 13 qualified declining churches (4 United, 3 Anglican, 3 Presbyterian, and
3 Lutheran) and 8 qualified growing churches (2 United, 1 Anglican, 4 Presbyterian,
and 1 Lutheran) participated in the part of the study addressed in this article.
We gathered information from participant churches using several survey
instruments, including a church profile questionnaire completed by a staff member
(typically the pastor), a clergy questionnaire completed by members of the pastoral staff, and a congregational questionnaire administered by the research team
to all adults in attendance during a Sunday service. Following the congregational
questionnaire, we sent follow-up interview questions via email to congregants who
had provided email contact information in the congregational survey. Overall, we
received 128 email responses (64 from attendees of growing congregations and 64
from attendees of declining congregations) from 16 of the 21 participant churches
before closing the survey, representing a response rate of 22% out of 584 people
who had provided contact information. We also conducted in-person clergy interviews, resulting in 22 clergy interviews from the 21 churches (two churches had
two clergy who shared leadership duties, and at another church, the minister did a
shortened version of the interview without the relevant questions).
We have reported on other aspects of this study elsewhere, including the overall differences between the growing and declining churches (Haskell et al. 2016b)
and the movement of people into and out of these churches (Haskell et al. 2016a),
but the focus of the current paper is on the explanations of church growth and decline
offered by the clergy and congregants. We asked clergy of declining churches the
following questions in the in-person interviews:
(1)What do you think are the reasons fewer people are attending and joining your congregation? These can be very localized reasons, or they can
be explanations that reference larger trends that you see in society or the
(2)Many congregations in Canada, the United States, and Europe have experienced a decline in attendance and membership. Why do think that is?
Are they declining because of the same reasons your church is declining?
We asked clergy of growing churches similar questions, mutatis mutandis:
(3)What do you think are the reasons more people are attending and joining your congregation? These can be very localized reasons, or they can
be explanations that reference larger trends that you see in society or the
(4)Unlike your own church, many mainline congregations in Canada, the
United States, and Europe have experienced a decline in attendance and
membership. Why do think that is?
We also posed several questions to congregants from declining and growing
churches via email. To avoid possible misunderstandings (given the textual
medium), we made these questions a little bit more specific. Declining church
congregants were asked:
(5)Do you think that there are things in the larger society—external factors—that are hindering your home church’s ability to attract new members and attendees?
(6)Do you think that there are things about your home church itself—internal factors—that are hindering its ability to attract new members and
(7)What do you think could be done at your home church to improve its
ability to attract new members and attendees?
Growing church congregants were asked:
(8)Do you think that there are things in the larger society—external factors—that are hindering other mainline churches’ ability to attract new
members and attendees?
(9)Do you think that there are things about other mainline churches themselves—internal factors—that are hindering their ability to attract new
members and attendees?
(10)What do you think could be done at other mainline churches to improve
their ability to attract new members and attendees?
We then coded the responses from each group using a process similar to the
constant comparative method (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Two members of the
research team worked in conjunction to establish categories and subcategories to
identify themes repeatedly arising in the responses. Given the size of our subject
pool, we were able to employ statistical analysis to assist in identifying significant
patterns in the distribution of responses.
The 21 participant churches were spread across southern Ontario from London
in the west to Toronto in the east, and from Paris in the south to Orillia in the
north. The churches ranged in age from 26 to 188, with both declining and growing churches averaging 128 years old. In the 16 churches where email interviews
were completed, the mean age of adult congregants (n = 2127) was 59. Among
these, declining church congregants were slightly older on average with a mean
age of 61, and growing church congregants slightly younger with a mean age of
54. Seventy percent of adult congregants were female (74% at declining and 63%
at growing). Clergy participants averaged 53 years of age (55 at declining, 51 at
growing); just under a quarter were female (23% of declining, 22% of growing).
Our surveys of all clergy and congregants also revealed differences in the
religious practices and beliefs of growing and declining church participants (see
Haskell et al. 2016b for detailed information). Growing church congregants read
the Bible and prayed more often than declining church congregants. Growing
church clergy likewise read the Bible more often than declining church clergy;
although they also reported praying more frequently this difference was not statistically significant. In terms of their beliefs, growing church congregants and
clergy in the study were more theologically conservative than declining church
congregants and clergy (Haskell et al. 2016b). We assessed participants’ degree
of theological conservatism based on their levels of agreement with a range of
belief statements representing more theologically conservative beliefs (e.g. “Jesus
rose from the dead with a real flesh and blood body, leaving an empty tomb”) and
disagreement with a range of statements representing more theologically liberal
beliefs (“The Bible is the product of human thinking about God, so some of its
teachings are wrong or misguided”). As groups, growing and declining church
clergy tended to be located at opposite poles on this spectrum with congregants
in between. Growing church clergy as a group exhibited the highest degree of
theological conservatism, followed by growing church congregants, then declining church congregants, and finally declining church clergy. As part of their theological conservatism, growing church participants were more likely to view God
as actively engaged in the world. For example, 76.9% of growing church clergy
strongly agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayer,” while only
6.25% of declining church clergy strongly agreed with this statement. Likewise
growing church clergy were significantly more likely to agree that Jesus physically
rose from the dead, that believing Christians have unique access to supernatural
power, and that speaking in tongues is a valid expression of worship. We return to
this more interventionist view of God in the discussion.
Since respondents often mentioned multiple subthemes within larger themes
or categories, and subthemes mentioned by only a few participants are not
reported, in the tables percentages within categories do not necessarily total to
100%. With a few exceptions for interpretive purposes, themes or subthemes are
only listed when they were mentioned by at least six congregants or two clergy
(i.e., roughly 10% or more of participants from that group); items mentioned by
this many people in either group are reported for both groups to allow comparison.
Participants’ Explanations for Decline: External Factors
We asked congregants directly about external factors that were responsible
for decline at their or other mainline Protestant churches, and nearly all of them
identified such factors. We did not ask clergy separate questions about internal
and external factors, but when asked to explain the decline of their or other
churches, about three-quarters of clergy mentioned external factors as part of
their answer.
As can be seen in Tables 1 and 2, most congregants cited the pressures of modern life—competition from other Sunday activities (cf. McMullin 2013), busyness, affluence, and the like—as reasons for declining church membership and
attendance. A congregant from a growing Presbyterian church, for example, wrote
“There are so many competing activities for people on Sunday mornings—such
as sports and shopping—that many feel they have no time for church.” A United
Church congregant similarly told us that “I think there are a number of factors in
our society hindering church attendance. They include Sunday shopping, sport
activities, people’s busy lives and the fact that for many couples only one of them
attends church so it’s not a family activity.” A substantial minority of clergy also
mentioned these types of factors. An Anglican clergyman, for instance, told us
TABLE 1 Congregants’ Explanations for Decline: External Factors
No, external factors don’t matter
Pressures of modern life
Sunday competition*
Affluence, materialism
Technology, entertainment
Attitudes related to religion
Negative perceptions of churches
Negative perceptions of Christian faith
Individualism, self-centeredness
People are spiritual, but not religious
Society is just more secular now***
Competition from other religious groups
Faith not being passed on to the next generation
Supernatural factors
Other factors
Characteristics of the church itself (off topic)
Don’t know, no on-topic answer, or no answer at all
1 (2%)
36 (56%)
17 (27%)
18 (28%)
7 (11%)
3 (5%)
33 (52%)
18 (28%)
9 (14%)
7 (11%)
2 (3%)
8 (13%)
5 (8%)
2 (3%)
1 (2%)
5 (8%)
14 (22%)
4 (6%)
1 (2%)
40 (63%)
27 (42%)
22 (34%)
4 (6%)
6 (9%)
36 (56%)
17 (27%)
8 (13%)
4 (6%)
4 (6%)
22 (34%)
4 (6%)
5 (8%)
6 (9%)
12 (19%)
2 (3%)
2 (2%)
76 (59%)
44 (34%)
40 (31%)
11 (9%)
9 (7%)
69 (54%)
35 (27%)
17 (13%)
11 (9%)
6 (5%)
30 (23%)
9 (7%)
7 (5%)
1 (1%)
11 (9%)
26 (20%)
6 (5%)
Fisher’s exact test differences between growing and declining: ***p ≤ .001; **p ≤ .01;
*p ≤ .05.
We’re competing. A generation ago, malls weren’t widely open. There was a, you know—.
When I was a kid, all the Sunday sports leagues were church-based. Now you’re out playing
ice hockey with your kids, or you’re this or that … and those things have transformed how
we do. And that’s not just for Anglicans, that’s for everybody….
A United Church minister emphasized the role of affluence in his interview:
See, I’m part of, or at least I’m on the leading edge of … the boomer generation. We are the
most mobile, wealthiest generation since the ’20’s, I would think before the great fall. The
Depression. And you know, winter holidays, ski chalets, most cottages these days are winterized—you know where our parents would go to the cottage for a month in the summer, or
two months in the summer—people now use cottages year-round.
The second most common type of answer, given by more than half of congregants and two-thirds of clergy, identified popular attitudes to religion as reasons
for the decline of churchgoing and membership. Most commonly mentioned were
negative views of the church (e.g., scandals) or Christianity (e.g., intolerant) in
general. The minister of a declining United Church, for instance, cited a “lack
of trust and total suspicion of the church” due to “things like child sexual abuse
and so on involving priests and ministers and all these high profile stories about
TABLE 2 Clergy Explanations for Decline: External Factors
No, external factors don’t matter
All external factors***
Pressures of modern life
Sunday competition**
Affluence, materialism
Technology, entertainment
Attitudes related to religion***
Negative perceptions of churches**
Negative perceptions of Christian faith
Individualism, self-centeredness**
People are spiritual, but not religious**
Society is just more secular now
Competition from other religious groups
Changing immigration patterns**
Faith not being passed on to the next generation
Supernatural factors
Other factors
Characteristics of the church itself (off topic)
Don’t know, no on-topic answer, or no answer at all
3 (38%) 13 (100%)
3 (38%) 6 (46%)
6 (46%)
1 (13%) 2 (15%)
2 (25%) 3 (23%)
2 (25%) 12 (92%)
6 (46%)
3 (23%)
6 (46%)
6 (46%)
2 (25%) 7 (54%)
2 (15%)
6 (46%)
1 (13%) 1 (8%)
16 (76%)
9 (43%)
6 (29%)
3 (14%)
5 (24%)
14 (67%)
6 (29%)
3 (14%)
6 (29%)
6 (29%)
9 (43%)
2 (10%)
6 (29%)
2 (10%)
Fisher’s exact test differences between growing and declining: ***p ≤ .001; **p ≤ .01;
*p ≤ .05.
them.” Other types of factors mentioned in this category tended to be less specific, such as individualism or self-centeredness that undercuts participation in
religious communities the rising popularity of spiritualities that do not fit with traditional religions, or, in very broad terms, the general secularization of society. As
an example of the last point, a participant from a declining Anglican church simply explained: “Europe first and then North America entered a post-Christian era
a long time ago.” A congregant from a declining Lutheran church similarly wrote,
“Christianity is no longer seen as a good by most people in society. It’s intolerant,
religious not spiritual, etc. It’s also frowned upon to talk about Jesus in public.”
Considerably smaller groups of congregants and clergy mentioned a range of other
external factors including competition from other religious groups and the failure of
parents and the school system to pass on Christian faith to the next generation. A few
clergy pointed to changing immigration patterns as a reason for church decline. Only
one participant, a congregant from a growing Presbyterian church, mentioned supernatural forces, explaining that churches were declining because “Satan has a hold on
many of us, and it’s very hard to give up all that we have e.g. power, money, etc.” All of
the other comments we received pointed to human factors rather than supernatural
ones, a noteworthy finding to which we return in the discussion.
The main difference between growing and declining churches is that participants from declining churches were more likely to mention external factors. This
pattern was true of most themes and subthemes and was more pronounced among
the clergy. While all declining church clergy cited external factors as reasons for
the decline, only about a third of growing church clergy did so. Declining church
clergy were especially more likely to attribute decline to Sunday competition,
something growing church clergy did not mention at all.
Compared to the clergy, the differences between growing and declining church
congregants were less pronounced, perhaps in part because congregants were asked
separate questions about external and internal factors (to maximize clarity in the
email medium) while clergy were asked a single combined question, making it
easier not to mention internal factors at all. Nevertheless, a similar pattern of
declining church congregants being more prone to mention external factors can
be seen across several categories. In particular, declining church congregants were
significantly more likely than growing church congregants to cite Sunday competition and a general shift to a more secular society as reasons for church decline.
Participants’ Explanations for Decline: Internal Factors
Participants were also asked whether there were internal factors of declining
churches that could help explain their decline (Tables 3 and 4). The large majority of congregants provided some internal factors. Nearly all clergy also provided
internal reasons for decline despite not being asked specifically to do so. A few
congregants and clergy, however, all from declining churches, went out of their
way to say that internal factors were not to blame for church decline. Some of
these answers had a defensive aspect; a minister of a declining United Church,
for example, said his church simply attracted a more “select clientele”:
[This church] will never be a McDonald’s restaurant. It’s not a fast food chain…. It’s a restaurant with linen and place settings and it does things up smartly. So it tends to attract the
mature adult … [We] attract a kind of symphony crew people who appreciate good music,
who appreciate good worship….
No growing church congregants or clergy gave a response of this type.
The most common answer from both types of congregants blamed the attitudes of existing members for decline, describing them as overly inward-looking,
resistant to change, judgmental, or too preoccupied with internal church politics.
A member of a growing Anglican church, for example, pointed to “the lack of
willingness on the part of the church to consider change, the lack of willingness
to look beyond itself and actually care about the people outside of its boundaries,
TABLE 3 Congregants’ Explanations for Decline: Internal Factors
Internal factors are not responsible for decline**
Bad attitudes of existing members
Too inward-looking
Resistant to change
Judgmental, legalistic
Church politics
Worship service problems
Too traditional, liturgical, or formal
Poor preaching quality
Poor music quality
Program, outreach problems
Failure to attract young families
Programming gaps, flaws
Lack of evangelism
Spiritual-theological problems
Theology not biblical/orthodox
Low expectations of members
Politics take precedence over spirituality
Lack of clear mission
Aging congregations*
Other internal factors
Financial challenges
Leadership failings
Location, accessibility problems*
Revision of membership rolls
Don’t know, no answer, or no on-topic answer
36 (56%)
19 (30%)
14 (22%)
9 (14%)
5 (8%)
18 (28%)
10 (16%)
6 (9%)
3 (5%)
13 (20%)
5 (8%)
4 (6%)
13 (20%)
12 (16%)
3 (5%)
3 (5%)
2 (3%)
1 (2%)
14 (22%)
4 (6%)
6 (9%)
5 (8%)
6 (9%)
31 (48%)
16 (25%)
17 (27%)
4 (6%)
3 (5%)
18 (28%)
13 (20%)
3 (5%)
4 (6%)
14 (22%)
6 (9%)
5 (8%)
8 (13%)
5 (8%)
3 (5%)
7 (11%)
12 (19%)
6 (9%)
3 (5%)
5 (8%)
1 (2%)
6 (5%)
67 (52%)
35 (27%)
31 (24%)
13 (10%)
8 (6%)
36 (28%)
23 (18%)
9 (7%)
7 (5%)
27 (21%)
11 (9%)
9 (7%)
21 (16%)
17 (13%)
6 (5%)
3 (2%)
2 (2%)
8 (6%)
26 (20%)
10 (8%)
9 (7%)
5 (4%)
6 (5%)
Fisher’s exact test differences between growing and declining: ***p ≤ .001; **p ≤ .01;
*p ≤ .05.
TABLE 4 Clergy Explanations for Decline: Internal Factors
All internal factors
Internal factors are not responsible for decline
Bad attitudes of existing members
Too inward-looking
Resistant to change
Judgmental, legalistic
Church politics
Sense of entitlement
Worship service problems
Too traditional, liturgical, or formal
Poor preaching quality
Poor music quality
Program and outreach problems
Failure to attract young families
Programming gaps, flaws
Lack of evangelism
Spiritual-theological problems***
Theology not biblical/orthodox***
Low expectations of members
Politics take precedence over spirituality
Lack of clear mission**
Aging congregations**
Other internal factors**
Financial challenges
Leadership failings
Location, accessibility problems
Revision of membership rolls
Don’t know, no answer, or no on-topic answer
8 (100%)
2 (25%)
2 (25%)
1 (13%)
2 (25%)
2 (25%)
3 (38%)
3 (38%)
8 (100%)
7 (88%)
2 (25%)
4 (50%)
1 (13%)
12 (92%)
2 (15%)
5 (38%)
4 (31%)
3 (23%)
2 (15%)
4 (31%)
4 (31%)
6 (46%)
3 (23%)
2 (15%)
2 (15%)
4 (31%)
2 (15%)
1 (8%)
6 (46%)
9 (69%)
2 (15%)
3 (23%)
4 (31%)
2 (15%)
20 (95%)
2 (10%)
7 (33%)
6 (29%)
3 (14%)
1 (5%)
2 (10%)
6 (29%)
6 (29%)
9 (43%)
3 (14%)
2 (10%)
5 (24%)
12 (57%)
9 (43%)
2 (10%)
5 (24%)
6 (29%)
10 (48%)
2 (10%)
3 (14%)
4 (19%)
2 (10%)
Fisher’s exact test differences between growing and declining: ***p ≤ .001; **p ≤ .01;
*p ≤ .05.
denominational bickering, [and the] lack of openness to new people joining the
church.” Answers in this category were also given by a third of clergy.
Smaller proportions of clergy and congregants brought up problems with worship services or church programs that made it difficult to retain current attendees or
attract new ones. An Anglican attending a declining church, for instance, lamented
that “The layout, the vestments, and the rituals are all from a different time. How is
a new person or someone outside the Church supposed to know what it all means?”
while a minister of a growing Lutheran church told us “I find that the most challenging thing for congregations that have been operating for a long time is that they give
up pursuing those who are not in the church.” As detailed in the tables, participants
mentioned a variety of subthemes relating to worship and programs.
The most common type of response from clergy, in contrast, pointed to specifically spiritual or theological features of churches as a reason for decline. This
response also revealed the most pronounced differences, across all questions,
between clergy of growing and declining churches. Clergy from growing churches
were much more likely to mention spiritual or theological factors than declining
church clergy (all growing vs. a third of declining). Growing and declining church
clergy also framed these factors quite differently. Most of the responses from growing church clergy, for example, saw declining churches as being insufficiently biblical or orthodox in their beliefs. The minister of a growing United Church referred
to John Shelby Spong, a well-known liberal theologian, to make his point:
[Spong has] been the number one selling author in the United Church of Canada over the
last 15 years .... At the same time, he was the presiding bishop over the fastest declining diocese in the United States. Over his decade, his diocese lost twice as many members than the
average Anglican Episcopal diocese in the U.S. while he was just pushing that progressive
liberal agenda of biblical interpretation.
In contrast, although two declining church clergy also believed nonorthodox
theology was a reason for decline, they interpreted this in the opposite fashion,
as reflecting positively on the theological sophistication of declining churches.
A minister of a declining United Church, for example, saw liberal theology as a
reason for decline, not because it was somehow flawed, but because it was intellectually superior:
One [reason for decline] is theological in that mainline churches such as ours have matured
in the direction of what we call “progressive Christianity” or “liberal Christianity,” which is
an intellectual Christianity…. People tend to go for fundamentalism, tend to go for basic
[saying] ‘Tell me what I want to believe or what I need to believe. Tell me how to behave.’
Similarly, the minister of a declining Lutheran church told us,
There are a lot of folks who want hard and fast answers as a reaction to all of the changes
going on, and that’s another reason our church is not going to grow. We’re not going to
appeal to those folks because we embrace ambiguity. We don’t give simple answers, and there
are churches who, quite frankly, provide simple answers.
A less common sub-theme in this category, mentioned by half of growing
church clergy and one declining church clergyperson, identified a general lack
of clarity about their core mission as a reason why some churches were declining, usually in connection with their comments about a lack of theological
Congregants were less likely than clergy to refer to spiritual or theological
features of churches as reasons for decline. The most common type of response
from congregants in this category, given by about one in six growing church congregants, mirrored the responses of growing church clergy by stressing a lack of
biblical teaching/orthodoxy as a reason for decline.
Another notable difference between the internal explanations given by
growing and declining church participants was that some declining clergy and
congregants attributed decline to the difficulties posed by increasingly elderly
congregations. None of our participants from growing churches mentioned
this factor, but a few declining church congregants and more than a quarter of
declining church clergy did so. While aging congregations are arguably a result
of decline as much as its cause, all of these answers cited it as an explanation for
decline. A United Church pastor, for instance, describing his declining church,
told us “So the current reason [for my congregation’s decline] is deaths. When
I came here … 91% of the congregation were over the age of 51.... And I have
had 32 deaths in four and a half years.”
A mixture of internal factors not fitting into the preceding categories was
mentioned by relatively small numbers of respondents. The most notable difference here was that nearly a third of declining church clergy and a small number
of declining church congregants attributed decline to problems with the location
or accessibility of their buildings, while no growing church clergy or congregants
mentioned building location or accessibility as a factor.
Finally, in terms of general patterns, declining church clergy were more
likely than growing church clergy to mention several internal factors that are
difficult to blame on clergy directly, including the bad attitudes of existing members, the aging of congregations, financial challenges, the limitations of their
buildings, and even the purging of inactive members from the membership rolls.
While declining clergy were more likely to cite leadership failings, these were
failings of past leaders (or in one case, the failings of a subsequent hire). On
the other hand, growing church clergy were more likely to attribute decline to
factors where clergy have a higher degree of direct influence, namely the theological outlook and clarity of mission of the church. This pattern was not evident everywhere—worship service and programming problems, for example,
are ambiguous cases—and several of these differences were not large enough
to be statistically significant. Nevertheless, the pattern is consistent with the
tendency we observed earlier that declining church clergy were more likely than
growing church clergy to attribute decline to external factors. We discuss the
implications of this below.
Congregants: What Should Churches Do to Grow?
We asked all congregant participants what churches should do to grow,
whether their own church (in the case of declining churches) or other mainline
churches (in the case of growing churches) (Table 5). Again, a wide range of suggestions was offered, roughly corresponding to the main types of internal factors
of decline mentioned above.
The most common type of response, mentioned by nearly half of congregants,
said churches should become more welcoming or outward looking to attract outsiders, for example by personally greeting visitors at worship services. Within this
category, declining church congregants were significantly more likely to suggest
TABLE 5 What Should Churches Do to Grow? Congregants’ Advice
Be more welcoming or outward looking
Do a better job of welcoming people
Be more outreach-oriented
Do better marketing**
Improve worship services
Update services
More flexibility/variety
Improve programs
Improve children/youth programming
Offer variety of programs
Offer small groups**
Offer connections for newcomers
Make spiritual-theological improvements**
Emphasize core Christian beliefs***
Pray more**
More liberal/open approach***
Try new things (general)***
Social engagement
Have good leaders**
Pessimism—nothing can be done
We’re already doing something*
Don’t know, no answer, or no on-topic answer
31 (48%)
23 (36%)
13 (20%)
2 (3%)
21 (33%)
15 (23%)
4 (6%)
18 (28%)
14 (22%)
5 (8%)
6 (9%)
4 (6%)
25 (39%)
18 (28%)
8 (13%)
13 (20%)
7 (11%)
11 (17%)
1 (2%)
29 (45%)
15 (23%)
9 (14%)
11 (17%)
17 (27%)
9 (14%)
6 (9%)
14 (22%)
8 (13%)
7 (11%)
2 (3%)
12 (19%)
3 (5%)
1 (2%)
10 (16%)
2 (3%)
8 (13%)
3 (5%)
4 (6%)
5 (8%)
6 (9%)
60 (47%)
38 (30%)
22 (17%)
13 (10%)
38 (30%)
24 (19%)
10 (8%)
32 (25%)
22 (17%)
12 (9%)
6 (5%)
6 (5%)
37 (29%)
21 (16%)
9 (7%)
10 (8%)
15 (12%)
15 (12%)
14 (11%)
4 (3%)
5 (4%)
7 (5%)
Fisher’s exact test differences between growing and declining: ***p ≤ .001; **p ≤ .01;
*p ≤ .05.
better marketing of their church’s existing features—as distinct from any changes
to the church itself—as a way to create growth. An attendee from a declining
United church, for example, explained: “Our church does a lot now, but a bigger advertisement budget to get the word into bigger publications and television
would help.” The second most common type of response suggested improvements
to worship services. Most often these respondents suggested updating services, for
example, through the use of more modern music. A smaller number of congregants recommended changes to church programs as a tactic to promote growth,
such as improvements to programming for children and/or youth. The only significant difference between growing and declining church congregants’ responses
in this area was that several growing church congregants, but no declining church
congregants, suggested that churches offer a small group program.
A quarter of respondents suggested improvements to the spiritual beliefs
or practices of the congregation. The biggest differences between growing
and declining church congregants emerged in this category. Growing church
congregants were particularly prone to say that churches needed to emphasize
core Christian beliefs to grow, paralleling the comments some congregants made
earlier about a lack of biblical content or theological orthodoxy as a reason for
decline. A Presbyterian from a growing church, for example, advised churches to
“Focus on the basis of Christian faith—why do we believe in God? Why do we
believe in Jesus is the Saviour of the world? You have to start with that or there is
no reason for anyone to go to church.” Likewise, a few congregants, again mostly
from growing churches, advised churches to pray more if they wanted to grow.
In contrast, only respondents from declining churches suggested that churches
should instead take a more open or liberal approach in order to attract people.
For instance, an Anglican at a declining church suggested a church should “Find
ways of indicating that this is a place where folk can explore their own ideas
about faith, to be more inclusive and not imply you cannot participate unless one
accepts all the statements expressed during worship, particularly the creed,” while
an attendee from a declining United church wrote “We need to let people know
we are a liberal leaning church which is open minded.”
Interestingly, a few congregants, all from declining churches, either expressed
pessimism about the ability of their church to grow, or conversely maintained that
their church was already doing the right things to create growth. As an example
of the first type of answer, one Lutheran at a declining church told us, “If we had
lots of money we could do lots of things, pay people to attend for example, ship in
some Africans. I suppose if we had energy and a sense of duty we could knock on
doors and invite our friends more often, but we’re old and introverted, used to the
status quo. I suppose I don’t have much hope for the future of my denomination.
Perhaps the building will be taken over by some Evangelicals. They seem to have
people.” By his comment this participant seemed to be acknowledging that some
urban mainline churches in Canada have experienced revitalization due to an
influx of highly devout Christian immigrants from Africa and elsewhere; in any
case, he did not see a hope for his church outside of extraordinary circumstances.
Growing Church Clergy: Why My Church Is Growing
Clergy from growing churches responded to a slightly different question,
asking them the reasons that they believed their particular church was growing
(Table 6). The question was worded in such a way to invite answers about social
or cultural factors, but none of them mentioned such factors as reasons for the
growth of their church. Instead, nearly all of the responses gave internal factors—characteristics of their churches—as the reasons they were growing. Most
of these clergy, however, also mentioned a third type of factor that cannot exactly
be classified as “internal”: the supernatural.
Nearly all of the growing church clergy (8 of 9) identified aspects of their
church’s spirituality and theology as reasons for their growth. Most of these (6)
pointed to their central emphasis on Jesus Christ and having a relationship with
him as an important factor. A Presbyterian minister representative of others said:
TABLE 6 Why Growing Clergy Think Their Churches Are Growing
Worship service
Pastoral leadership
Evangelism/outreach activities
High expectations for members
Congregational community
Supernatural factors
8 (89%)
8 (89%)
6 (67%)
5 (56%)
4 (44%)
4 (44%)
3 (33%)
5 (56%)
I’m on the visitation team for our presbytery so I visit other churches in my denomination
... and I would say the biggest difference is that our leadership at this church, what in our
denomination we call the session, the folks who make all the decisions, are all evangelical
Christians…. And they really have a personal relationship with Christ and they want other
people to have that and I don’t notice that at the other [churches’] session meetings.
An equal number pointed to evangelical or conservative theology in general as
underpinning growth. An Anglican minister, for example, spoke of her own turn
toward conservative doctrine citing the time she first tried using the Alpha Course
(a theologically conservative course for introducing Christianity to non-Christians). She said:
I didn’t really know much about it and I was like, super nervous, but I thought that it was
probably a good thing, and I ran it, and I was like totally petrified because it sounded so
conservative to me, right? Like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe [the speaker on the video] is saying all this stuff, but I actually saw people become Christians, and I would’ve been like, 25,
newly ordained, and seeing people actually come to faith, once you’ve seen that, you never
want to go back, right?
In a related vein, half of the growing clergy (4) said the boldness of their message
contributed to growth, such as a United minister who explained, “I think that’s
something [others have] really lost in the sense of orthodox Christianity … we’re
afraid to say that Christ is unique and powerful and different than all other religions.”
Equally popular as an explanation for the growth of their churches were
the characteristics of worship services. Most of them (5) said that their or their
associates’ focus on preaching from the Bible was an important factor, such as a
Presbyterian pastor who told us,
I don’t try and water down the gospel in the church, and I think that’s what it is. I take a text
[of the Bible] and I preach the text within its context…. And I think the people have the need
for that, for the word to be spoken as the word of God. They can read all kinds of books on
how to get your life in order and how to build a nice family and all this kind of stuff. They
want to hear, ‘What does God want in my life? What does God want to do with my life?’ So
I preach the text—the word—not other stuff.
Another major subtheme concerning the worship service, mentioned by six
respondents, was the importance of incorporating more contemporary or less formal musical and liturgical approaches to form a “blended service” combining traditional and contemporary elements. A Presbyterian minister, for example, referred
to his church’s transition to a “more blended” approach that incorporates “a praise
band with drums, guitars, violins” while continuing the use of the organ and, occasionally, a choir. On a similar note, half (4) of the respondents stressed the importance of using language in worship services that would be accessible to visitors.
Six growing church clergy also highlighted their church’s programs as a reason
for growth. These comments were highly varied with no evident consensus on
which programs were important. Two clergy specifically mentioned the importance of family-oriented programs, while others mentioned small groups, marriage
programs, and course on basic Christianity. A slight majority (5) also referred to
the importance of good leadership for growth, though the precise nature of these
responses again varied widely. Three respondents cited leaders’ level of energy
and commitment as an important factor, such as an Anglican minister who made
a decision early in his ministry to not imitate other ministers he knew who would
“just sit around and be depressed,” but instead “started hanging out with guys who
were excited about ministry.” Two respondents highlighted the importance of
leaders being able to admit their mistakes, and the same number mentioned the
importance of long-term commitment to a church on the part of clergy.
Minorities of growing church clergy identified other features of their church
as contributing to their growth. Four mentioned the importance of having an
outward, disciple-making or evangelistic focus rather than being inward-looking.
A Lutheran pastor, for example, explained “One of the key ideas when we started
our new service in our new building was that we are not here to fulfill the few
but our lives are to be used for the blessing of many. The centrality of mission is
key to our outlook.” Another theme, the importance of having high expectations for members, was also mentioned by four clergy, such as an Anglican pastor
who began requiring parents requesting baptism for their children to first take a
“Christianity 101” course on the basics of the Christian faith. Finally, a third of
clergy (3) cited the importance of having a strong congregational community
that was caring and welcoming of newcomers.
While all of the responses mentioned so far cited human attributes or activities of churches, a slight majority (5) of growing church clergy also mentioned a
different kind of factor: the work of supernatural forces, specifically God’s work in
the congregation and its leaders. A United Church minister, for example, began
by stressing this point:
My first and strongest answer is that it’s God, it’s the Holy Spirit, and so it’s not so much that
we have initiated anything, it’s I think we have had hearts and spirits open in the leadership here, and receptive—being a conduit, a pipeline—allowed the Holy Spirit and the living
Christ to be at work here. People feel that when they walk in. I’m not sure I want to start off
by saying we’ve done any great strategic moves, I think the better reason is simply a spiritual
vitality that our leadership has not blocked….
One Presbyterian minister simply stated, “I do really see the hand of God in all
of this.”
It is clear that the clergy and attendees of these mainline Protestant churches
do not share a single view of what causes churches to grow or decline, and it was
common for individual participants to list multiple explanatory factors. There was
also substantial overlap between the types of explanations given by clergy and congregants, as well as the types of explanations given by participants from declining
churches and those from growing churches. Most of the same categories and even
many of the specific subthemes were mentioned in each group, indicating that
these explanations have currency with at least with some people in each group.
Of particular interest, however, were the systematic differences that emerged
between the various groups. These differences followed a broad pattern: participants from declining churches were more likely to attribute the numerical fate of
churches to external factors, while participants from growing churches were more
likely to attribute it to internal factors. This pattern was most clearly evident
in the responses given by clergy. Clergy from declining churches tended to see
the decline of their churches as something they could not do much, if anything,
about. They favored external factors as explanations for decline, and even when
they gave internal factors, several of them were largely beyond their control, such
as the advanced age of their congregants and problems with the location of their
buildings. Clergy from growing churches, in contrast, favored internal factors
when explaining decline, and even more strongly favored internal factors when
explaining growth. They saw the numerical fortunes of their churches as something which they could control, or at least affect significantly.
Explaining Differences in Explanatory Strategies
What accounts for these differences? Clearly, they fit the predictions of attribution theory, which posits that people in organizations, especially leaders, tend
to take credit for successes and shift blame for failures (Bettman and Weitz 1983;
Heider 1958; cf. Vaara et al. 2014). Clergy, as leaders bearing responsibility for
their churches, feel these pressures most acutely and are therefore more polarized
along the spectrum of external-internal factors than their congregants. On the
surface, this might suggest that our participants’ explanations are simply ex post
facto rationalizations: if your church is declining, you blame external factors or at
least internal factors outside your control; if your church is growing, you credit
the things you have been doing. Looking deeper, however, it is striking that many
of our participants’ explanations are plausible and indeed in line with explanations given by scholars. Many theorists of secularization and religious change
would argue, for instance, that aspects of modern life and contemporary Western
culture do dampen the demand for organized religion; many researchers would
also argue that church characteristics play a role in church growth. And, as mentioned above, there is much overlap between the types of explanations given by
people from growing and declining churches. Our participants’ explanations for
growth and decline should therefore not be too quickly dismissed as mere rationalizations: some of them are plausible good-faith attempts to understand what is
happening to their churches and the churches of others. Nevertheless, attribution
theory provides a compelling reason why participants from growing and declining
churches are predisposed to favor internal and external explanations for growth/
decline, and why this pattern is more pronounced among clergy.
At the same time, it is possible that these attributions, or explanatory strategies, are not only a result of growth or decline but also a contributing cause of
growth or decline, a point also made by McMullin (2013). We propose that the
relationship between attribution and growth/decline can be a virtuous or vicious
circle. In the virtuous circle, clergy and congregants believe that their actions can
promote growth—the “active” disposition—and therefore try to make changes
(e.g., new outreach initiatives, worship service improvements) to better attract
and retain members. If growth results, they attribute it to their work, and this further strengthens their resolve to take strategic action. All of the growing church
clergy and many of the growing church congregants we talked to appeared to fit
into this category. The vicious circle, on the other hand, involves clergy and congregants who believe that decline is due to factors outside their control (building
location, immigration patterns, etc.) and that there is, therefore, nothing they
can do to reverse it—the “passive” disposition. Such people are unlikely to try
to do the things that might help, and the ensuing decline simply confirms them
further in their belief that decline is inevitable, an attribution which also allows
them to preserve self-esteem. These virtuous and vicious circles appear to operate
most strongly among clergy, who have the strongest attribution incentives and
the most control over the directions of their churches. Not all of the declining
church clergy we talked to fully fit this picture, as a few of them were making
vigorous efforts to reverse the decline and seemed to believe that these efforts
might succeed, but it was strongly evident among other declining church clergy,
especially those who saw the decline of their church as a badge of honor (the
“we’re not McDonald’s” type of response). To say the least, such clergy would
not be highly motivated to make changes to promote growth. In sum, the causal
relationship between attribution and growth/decline may run in both directions.
It is fascinating that this division between external and internal explanations for church decline mirrors in important respects the infamous secularization debate between classical secularization theory and supply-side theory. In this
study, people in declining churches tend to think more like classical secularization
theorists, believing that secularization is a general social process that churches
can’t do much about (cf. Bruce 2011; Thiessen 2012), while people in growing churches instead agree with supply-side theorists that decline (or growth)
is mostly about what churches do or fail to do to activate religious demand (cf.
Bibby 2012; Stark and Finke 2000). These ways of thinking in turn favor either
the passive disposition (and vicious attribution-decline circle) or the active disposition (and virtuous attribution-growth circle), respectively. It is possible that
the participants in our study were exposed to one or the other type of theory
at some point in their education, or through the popular media, but we see no
obvious reason why members of growing churches would have been more likely
to encounter the supply-side model or why members of declining churches would
have been more likely to encounter the classical secularization paradigm. For
example, growing and declining church clergy in our study had very similar levels of formal education, with 100% of declining and 84.6% of growing church
clergy possessing a Master’s degree or higher (Haskell et al. 2016b). We did not,
however, ask more detailed questions about the type or content of the education
they received. Clergy and churchgoers’ familiarity with sociological theories of
religious change would be an illuminating topic for further research. Pending the
results of such research, a possible practical implication of our study for educational institutions that train future clergy is that they may want to avoid teaching
them (intentionally or otherwise) to think of themselves or their churches as
passive victims of secularizing forces outside their control.
Internal Secularization: The Preference for Human Explanations
Aside from these differences between the various groups of participants,
another important finding of this study concerns the tendency of most of them to
attribute church growth and decline to human factors. One might expect some
Christians (in past eras, or in charismatic settings, for instance) to explain growth
or decline in terms of the action of God or other supernatural agents—revival as
God’s blessing, decline as his judgment, loss of members as the result of demonic
deceptions. Our participants, in contrast, overwhelmingly favored purely human
explanations, whether pointing to the human characteristics of churches themselves or the features of human society at large. Growing church clergy saw God’s
action as an important reason for church growth, but this kind of response was
unusual. The large majority of the other clergy and congregant participants
explained growth mostly in terms of human factors. This preference for human
explanations was even more evident when explaining decline: out of 128 congregants and 22 clergy, only one person gave an explicitly supernatural explanation
for decline (the congregant who attributed it to Satan’s activity).
This overwhelming preference for human explanations for growth and decline
is remarkable. We suggest that it reflects a kind of partial internal secularization of
these churches. Charles Taylor has argued that the last few centuries in Western
societies have seen a decline of belief in the activity of supernatural agents and a
concomitant shift from the “porous self” who is open to influence by such agents, to
the “buffered self” who is insulated from the activities of God, demons, and the like
and captain of his or her own fate (Taylor 2007). Ellul made a complementary argument by pointing to the increasing emphasis on “technique” in modern Western
society, which he saw as an obsession with finding the most efficient (human)
means to achieve particular results, not only in technological domains as such but
also in matters of the sacred (Ellul 1964). The declining church clergy and congregants and the growing church congregants—and even, though to a much lesser
extent, the growing church clergy—in our study appear to share this view of themselves as buffered from supernatural forces and (where they believe their actions are
relevant) needing only the correct human technique to produce growth or prevent
decline. Put differently, applying Peter Berger’s concept of a plurality of types of secular and religious consciousness coexisting in modern society (Berger 2012), most
participants tended to offer explanations within the ambit of the dominant, default
secular discourse, while only a few (mostly growing church clergy) additionally or
alternatively offered explanations from within their religious discourses.
Even here, however, we note partial exceptions, reflecting differences between
growing and declining church participants. Congregants and especially clergy
from growing churches were more likely than their declining church counterparts to invoke spiritual and explicitly supernatural explanations, though human
explanations predominated. In the clearest example, just over half of growing
church clergy explained the growth of their churches by reference to supernatural factors—God’s intervention in and through the church and its leaders. It is
also noteworthy that a small minority of growing church congregants mentioned
the importance of prayer, which may imply a similar view. Perhaps another partial exception was the tendency of nearly all growing church clergy and a large
minority of growing church congregants to stress spiritual and/or theological
features of churches, including theological orthodoxy and biblical teaching, as
important explanations of growth or decline, which again may imply a belief in
the importance of supra-human, supernatural forces.
The Role of Theological and Worldview Differences
This last point illustrates that some of the differences in explanatory strategies
between growing and declining church participants appear to reflect underlying
differences in the theologies and worldviews of the two groups. As noted earlier,
our research revealed that growing church clergy and congregants tended to be
more theologically conservative than declining church clergy and congregants,
with clergy located at the conservative and liberal extremes and congregants
closer to the middle (Haskell et al. 2016b). Among other things, this means that
members of our growing churches, especially clergy, believe in a more traditional
Christian concept of God, that is, a God who is active in the world, performing
miracles and answering prayers. They tend to take the Bible more literally as being
word-for-word inspired by God, and believe in God’s direct involvement in the
world (as witnessed in Christ’s physical resurrection, for example). In short, their
worldview is more supernaturalistic and open to the possibility of divine action.
The beliefs of growing church clergy and congregants are also more activist, in
the sense that they see Christianity as uniquely true and effective, and therefore
place a higher priority on converting non-Christians to their faith.
In contrast, the worldviews of declining church participants, especially clergy,
appear to correspond to Taylor’s notion of the “immanent frame,” as seen in their
theological views that are less open to the miraculous elements of traditional
Christian belief and the possibility of God’s miraculous intervention in the world.
Most of our declining church clergy, for example, did not agree that God performed
miracles in answer to prayer, or that believing Christians have unique access to
supernatural power, in sharp contrast to growing church clergy. Our declining church
clergy were also more reserved about evangelism: none of them strongly agreed that
“It is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” compared
to 76.9% of growing church clergy (Haskell et al. 2016b). The differences may be
even greater than what was apparent in our interviews, since some of our theologically conservative participants may have downplayed their beliefs, including their
belief in a God who is powerful and active in the world, given the reputation of
academic researchers as being prejudiced against conservative Protestants (Yancey
et al. 2015). Indeed, in keeping with Berger’s (2012) idea that people in modern
pluralistic societies are able to switch between secular and religious discourses, it is
possible that these participants are used to operating in a religious discourse mode,
but switched into a secular idiom given their participation in an academic study.
Might these differences in worldview and theology be related to the active
and passive dispositions and resulting virtuous/vicious circles described earlier? It
seems likely that one’s theology could tip one in the direction of either an active
or passive disposition, and consequently, a virtuous or vicious circle of growth or
decline. Some of the themes stressed by conservative theology, such as the urgency
of evangelism and the reality of God’s response to prayer, would tip people toward
a belief that their actions can produce growth. Believing in a God who answers
prayers in miraculous ways and who wants to see people converted to the faith
would also tend to make countervailing social trends and obstacles—the trends
and obstacles often cited by declining church participants—seem less daunting. In
contrast, the more theologically liberal participants from the declining churches,
particularly clergy, had much less confidence in the idea that God would intervene
in human affairs, making it easier to think of decline as inevitable. Alongside this
possibility, it is conceivable that the causality (also?) runs in the other direction,
that is, that the experience of decline tips one in the direction of a less interventionist view of God. If your church is in decline, it may be easier not to believe in
a God who intervenes in human affairs, since this would suggest that God may be
indifferent to the plight of your church, or perhaps angry with you or your fellow
There is a fascinating parallel here with recent research suggesting that people who identify as politically conservative are more likely to attribute wealth
or poverty to individual effort, while those who identify as politically liberal
tend to attribute it to circumstances beyond individual control (Smith 2017),
though the relationship between religious and political forms of liberalism and
conservatism is complex. Wellman’s (2008) observation that liberal Protestants
abhor market-type language about churches competing and seeking “customers,”
perhaps because of a deep-seated dislike of capitalism, may be a point of contact between political and religious liberalism. More directly to the point, several studies have argued that theological conservatism can contribute to church
growth (Finke and Stark 2005; Kelley 1972; Reimer and Wilkinson 2015; Stark
and Finke 2000; for contrary views see e.g., Donahue and Benson 1993; Voas
and Watt 2014); this active disposition may be one of the mechanisms by which
it does so. We explore the role of conservative theology in the growth of these
churches elsewhere (Haskell et al. 2016b), but further research is needed into
this specific question of whether conservative theological beliefs and a supernaturalistic worldview incline people to a more hopeful view about the possibility of
church growth.
Secularization Resistance in Growing Churches
Drawing together these threads, we suggest that conservative theological
beliefs confer—or perhaps are evidence of—a higher degree of secularization
resistance in the growing churches. This is secularization resistance in multiple simultaneous senses: resistance on a numerical level to secularizing forces
that drive church decline; resistance on an explanatory level to the kinds of
explanations associated with the classical secularization paradigm; and (some)
resistance on a worldview level to the internal secularization that leads church
members to conceive of growth and decline in purely human terms. While
the first kind of resistance—numerical resistance—has often been the focus
of church growth research (it is, after all, what defines growing churches) this
study suggests that it coincides to some degree with the other two kinds of
resistance, and that theological conservatism is associated with all three. In any
case, our findings show that research on church growth and decline can benefit from a further qualitative investigation of the perspectives and deeply held
beliefs of the people in those churches themselves, including their explanations
of growth and decline.
The authors are grateful to Christina Demeter and Amanda Myles for their
assistance with the research, to Noah Van Brenk for editorial assistance, and to
the three anonymous reviewers who offered their suggestions.
This research was supported by grants from the research offices of Wilfrid Laurier
University and Redeemer University College.
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