Does Christianity Need to Change or Die, or Will it Die if It Changes?

Nobody who’s around The Crossing for long will confuse it with a perfect church. But over the last 16+ years, we’ve seen it grow from a couple of dozen people to regularly having over three thousand adults worship on a Sunday morning. And while that’s very encouraging, it also sparks a few important questions.

Why does a church grow? And what will help it continue to grow?

Ultimately, the answer to both questions is the sheer grace of God, and it’s exceedingly important to remember that fact. But I think it’s fair to say that God normally uses various ways to deliver that grace, and recent research offers some insight into at least one of them. And that particular way, it turns out, runs counter to what many observers might think.

To set the stage a bit: there’s no shortage of those who argue that Christianity must change or die. The idea is that people in our modern, technological age can no longer accept historic/traditional/conservative Christianity because it holds to things like the authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, his bodily resurrection and other miracles, the necessity of believing in Christ for salvation, moral standards that the critics in question would characterize as objectionable, and so on.

So Christianity must get rid of or adapt these and many other beliefs. Only then will its churches thrive in our contemporary age. Or so the argument goes.

But the results of a recent five-year study of churches in Ontario would suggest that truth of the matter is just the opposite. One of the researchers, David Haskell, put it this way in an article in the Washington Post:

Over the last five years, my colleagues and I conducted a study of 22 mainline congregations in the province of Ontario. We compared those in the sample that were growing mainline congregations to those that were declining. After statistically analyzing the survey responses of over 2,200 congregants and the clergy members who serve them, we came to a counterintuitive discovery: Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline. The results were published this month in the peer-reviewed journal, Review of Religious Research.

We also found that for all measures, growing church clergy members were most conservative theologically, followed by their congregants, who were themselves followed by the congregants of the declining churches and then the declining church clergy members. In other words, growing church clergy members are the most theologically conservative, while declining church clergy members are the least.

Previous studies have noted that theologically conservative churches are growing. But according to Haskell, this new research points to why: “The strength of our study is we actually now can explain it: because theology matters.”

I couldn’t agree more. To that point: if all beliefs and ways of life are equally valid, why bother being involved in a church, or try to convince others to do the same. At the end of the day, why does it matter?

Likewise, what supporters term as modern or theologically progressive versions of Christianity can be appealing in certain respects. But what if, over time, people in those contexts begin to see a lot of similarities between what they experience at church and the predominant values and sentiment of the culture at large? Will they find anything unique or particularly valuable about being a part of a church?

On the other hand, if historic, biblical Christianity claims to be a genuinely true story, a story that explains our lives and world better than the alternatives, and if the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection really is the answer to every human being’s most fundamental needs and desires, then you have every reason to be a part of church that helps understand these things. And if you’ve actually experienced your life changing for the better as a result of those truths (many of which run counter to our default approach to our lives), and you’re regularly encouraged by relationships with other Christians, you’ll have a reason to keep coming back. And you’ll likely want to see others experience the same thing.

One Comment

  1. John said:

    My brother and I we on this very subject the other day. You see in churches across the country the attempt to make the church “relevant” by having the culture change the Bible rather than the Bible changing the culture – Making God in our own image.

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