When they set out to find growing mainline churches, sociologist David Haskell and historian Kevin Flatt did the logical thing -- they asked leaders of four key Canadian denominations to list their successful congregations.
It didn't take long, however, to spot a major problem as the researchers contacted these Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran parishes.
"Few, if any, of the congregations these denomination's leaders named were actually growing," said Haskell, who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Branford, Ontario. "A few had experienced a little bit of growth in one or two years in the past, but for the most part they were holding steady, at best, or actually in steady declines."
To find thriving congregations in these historic denominations, Haskell and Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, had to hunt on their own. By word of mouth, they followed tips from pastors and lay leaders to other growing mainline churches.
The bottom line: The faith proclaimed in growing churches was more orthodox -- especially on matters of salvation, biblical authority and the supernatural -- than in typical mainline congregations. These churches were thriving on the doctrinal fringes of shrinking institutions.
"The people running these old, established denominations didn't actually know much about their own growing churches," said Haskell, reached by telephone. "Either that or they didn't want to admit which churches were growing."
The researchers stated their conclusions in the title -- "Theology Matters" -- of a peer-reviewed article in the current Review of Religious Research. In all, they plan five academic papers built on their studies of clergy and laypeople in nine growing and 13 declining congregations in southern Ontario, a region Haskell called church friendly, in the context of modern Canada.
Focusing on 2003-2013, the researchers defined "decline" as an average loss of 2 percent of church attendees a year. "Growing" churches were gaining people in the pews at a rate of 2 percent or more.
Haskell said leaders of doctrinally progressive churches tend to believe that "strong convictions are what matter and it really doesn't matter what those convictions are. That is not what we see in the numbers, after our research. What we see is that growing churches hold more firmly to basics of traditional Christianity, including being more diligent about things like prayer, Bible reading and evangelism."
Crucial findings in this study showed that, in growing churches, pastors tend to be more conservative than the people in their pews. In declining congregations, pastors are usually more theologically liberal than their people. For example:
* Clergy in growing churches affirmed, by an overwhelming 93 percent, that Jesus rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb, while 56 percent of clergy in declining churches agreed. Among laypeople, this divide was 83 percent vs. 67 percent.
* In growing churches, 46 percent of clergy strongly affirmed, and nearly 31 percent moderately affirmed, this statement: "Only those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ will receive eternal life." Zero pastors in declining churches affirmed that statement and 6 percent moderately agreed.
* In growing congregations, 100 percent of the clergy said it's crucial to "encourage non-Christians to become Christians," while only 50 percent of pastors in declining churches agreed.
* In declining churches, 44 percent of pastors agreed that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers," compared with 100 percent of clergy in growing congregations.
There were other patterns worthy of future study, said Haskell. Growing churches were much younger, with two-thirds of their members under the age of 60, while two-thirds of those attending declining churches were over 60. Families in growing churches also had more children. Finally, growing mainline churches were finding their new members among outsiders -- people who say going to church is new for them -- at the same rate, about 12 percent, as growing evangelical Protestant churches.
"It's hard to avoid what we see in the numbers," said Haskell, who described himself as a "rather nontraditional believer" who teaches in a state university. "If you believe that Jesus is THE path to the best life in this life, and eternal life in the next, then you're going to practice your faith differently than someone who believes that all religions are basically the same. … As it turns out, doctrines really do have consequences."