Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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Theology Matters

  • Dr. James Emery White

    The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and…

  • Published Nov 30, 2016

On the church and culture front, it’s an old story: Mainline churches in the U.S. and Canada are in decline, evangelical and charismatic churches are on the rise.

On face value, it would be easy to the see the demarcation along stylistic lines. Mainline churches tend to be more traditional in style; evangelical and charismatic churches more contemporary. Yet there are enough exceptions to this rule to prevent it from being the sole – if not leading – factor.

The deeper truth lies in… well, truth. In 1972 Dean M. Kelley released the results of a sociological study of religion titled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.

The conclusion? 

Conservative churches were growing because they were conservative.

A new study now confirms this thesis. Researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University and Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada, have concluded that the reason some churches decline while others grow is largely based on their theological beliefs. If the members of a church and its clergy embrace conservative theological beliefs, they tend to be growing. If they don’t, they tend to be in decline.

“The riddle of mainline death has been solved,” said David M. Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Of equal interest is how the declining churches self-identify the cause of their decline. Members and clergy of declining churches blame changes in society leading to dropped interest in religion.

The reality is that growing churches hold more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs and are more diligent in such things as prayer and Bible reading. They tend to take the Bible at face value as truth, and believe that God is alive and active in the world.

How foundational is this divide?

Consider this:

93 percent of pastors in growing churches said they agree with the statement: “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb.”

In declining churches?

Only 56 percent.

Many would say: “My goodness! If you don’t believe that, what kind of Christianity are you espousing?”

Certainly not something that is arresting the attention of the world.

And that is the point. If we water down our faith in order to have it match the world’s values and ideals, then we end up having nothing to offer the world that it does not already have.

What is most compelling in a post-Christian world is not a playback of its already existing perspectives. No, the voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content and bold in its challenge.

In other words, Christianity as presented by Christ Himself.

So let’s make sure this isn’t missed.

Mainline churches are in decline, and have been for many decades.

Conservative churches are growing.

“The strength of our study is we actually now can explain it,” Haskell concludes,

… “because theology matters.” 

James Emery White



Emily McFarlan Miller, “Study finds churches with conservative theology still growing,” Religion News Service, November 21, 2016, read online.

The results of the five-year research project will be published in the December issue of the Review of Religious Research.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite

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