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. INTRODUCTION 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: email@example.com. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals. firstname.lastname@example.org 1 2 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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. LITERATURE REVIEW 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 SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 3 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 4 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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 SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 5 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 6 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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 SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 7 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. METHOD 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. 8 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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 world-at-large. (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 world-at-large. SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 9 (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 attendees? (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. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF CHURCHES AND PARTICIPANTS 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 10 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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. RESULTS 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. SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 11 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 that TABLE 1 Congregants’ Explanations for Decline: External Factors Category Subcategory No, external factors don’t matter Pressures of modern life Sunday competition* Busyness 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 Growing 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%) Declining 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%) 0 6 (9%) 12 (19%) 2 (3%) Total 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. 12 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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 Category Subcategory No, external factors don’t matter All external factors*** Pressures of modern life Sunday competition** Busyness 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 Growing Declining 0 0 3 (38%) 13 (100%) 3 (38%) 6 (46%) 0 6 (46%) 1 (13%) 2 (15%) 2 (25%) 3 (23%) 0 0 2 (25%) 12 (92%) 0 6 (46%) 0 3 (23%) 0 6 (46%) 0 6 (46%) 2 (25%) 7 (54%) 0 2 (15%) 0 6 (46%) 1 (13%) 1 (8%) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Total 0 16 (76%) 9 (43%) 6 (29%) 3 (14%) 5 (24%) 0 14 (67%) 6 (29%) 3 (14%) 6 (29%) 6 (29%) 9 (43%) 2 (10%) 6 (29%) 2 (10%) 0 0 0 0 Fisher’s exact test differences between growing and declining: ***p ≤ .001; **p ≤ .01; *p ≤ .05. SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 13 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”: 14 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION [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 Category Subcategory 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 Growing Declining Total 0 36 (56%) 19 (30%) 14 (22%) 9 (14%) 5 (8%) 18 (28%) 10 (16%) 6 (9%) 3 (5%) 13 (20%) 5 (8%) 4 (6%) 0 13 (20%) 12 (16%) 3 (5%) 3 (5%) 2 (3%) 1 (2%) 14 (22%) 4 (6%) 6 (9%) 0 0 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%) 0 8 (13%) 5 (8%) 3 (5%) 0 0 7 (11%) 12 (19%) 6 (9%) 3 (5%) 5 (8%) 0 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%) 0 21 (16%) 17 (13%) 6 (5%) 3 (2%) 2 (2%) 8 (6%) 26 (20%) 10 (8%) 9 (7%) 5 (4%) 0 6 (5%) Fisher’s exact test differences between growing and declining: ***p ≤ .001; **p ≤ .01; *p ≤ .05. SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 15 TABLE 4 Clergy Explanations for Decline: Internal Factors Category Subcategory 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 Growing 8 (100%) 0 2 (25%) 2 (25%) 0 1 (13%) 0 0 2 (25%) 2 (25%) 0 0 3 (38%) 0 0 3 (38%) 8 (100%) 7 (88%) 0 2 (25%) 4 (50%) 0 1 (13%) 0 0 0 0 0 Declining 12 (92%) 2 (15%) 5 (38%) 4 (31%) 3 (23%) 0 0 2 (15%) 4 (31%) 4 (31%) 0 0 6 (46%) 3 (23%) 2 (15%) 2 (15%) 4 (31%) 2 (15%) 0 0 1 (8%) 6 (46%) 9 (69%) 2 (15%) 3 (23%) 4 (31%) 2 (15%) 0 Total 20 (95%) 2 (10%) 7 (33%) 6 (29%) 3 (14%) 1 (5%) 0 2 (10%) 6 (29%) 6 (29%) 0 0 9 (43%) 3 (14%) 2 (10%) 5 (24%) 12 (57%) 9 (43%) 0 2 (10%) 5 (24%) 6 (29%) 10 (48%) 2 (10%) 3 (14%) 4 (19%) 2 (10%) 0 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 16 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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 orthodoxy. 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. SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 17 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 18 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION TABLE 5 What Should Churches Do to Grow? Congregants’ Advice Category Subcategory 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 Growing Declining Total 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%) 0 13 (20%) 7 (11%) 11 (17%) 0 0 1 (2%) 29 (45%) 15 (23%) 9 (14%) 11 (17%) 17 (27%) 9 (14%) 6 (9%) 14 (22%) 8 (13%) 7 (11%) 0 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 SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 19 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: 20 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION TABLE 6 Why Growing Clergy Think Their Churches Are Growing Category Responses Spirituality/theology Worship service Programs 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. SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 21 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 22 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION vitality that our leadership has not blocked…. One Presbyterian minister simply stated, “I do really see the hand of God in all of this.” DISCUSSION 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 SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 23 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) 24 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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 SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 25 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. 26 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION 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 congregants. 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 SECULARIZATION AND ATTRIBUTION 27 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. 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