This was the headline from a Washington Post story this week, which reported the results of a five year study of mainline churches in Canada. This isn’t entirely old news. I’ve been reading stories of the ‘decline of the mainline’ now for more than a decade (where some reports show a hemorrhaging of a million members annually.)
It seems that what it comes down to in the end is: Do you believe in the truthfulness and authority of Scripture? Take a more literal view of the Bible where you accept its teachings, and your congregation grows. Take a more “enlightened” view of the Bible where you question the authenticity and usefulness of its teachings, and your pews empty out.
The Canadian study found that 93 percent of conservative clergy and 83 percent of conservative congregants agreed with the statement that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb”. Meanwhile 67 percent of liberal congregants and 56 percent of liberal clergy agreed. Similar results were found when survey participants were asked if they believed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers”. (Interestingly, the study showed that conservative clergy were slightly more orthodox than their churches, while liberal clergy were less orthodox than theirs, sometimes by a wide margin. For example 80 percent of liberal worshipers agreed that God performs miracles while only 44 percent of liberal clergy did.)
While many observers seem to be scratching their heads at these findings, there is a “But of course!” way of looking at this. The Bible is to Christianity what the Constitution is to the United States. All our beliefs and practices flow from it. Left and Right may not always see eye to eye in how the Constitution is to be interpreted about a given situation, but both sides at least give lip service to the authority they say it possesses. But in Christianity, the great divide between Left and Right is not over interpretation of Scripture (plenty of conservatives have robust conversations about many a doctrine). The divide comes over Scripture’s authority.
Because they do not believe that the Bible is sufficiently factual, accurate, relevant, provable as the Word of God (i.e. because they do not believe there is something supernatural about the book), liberal clergy and many of their congregants cut off their legs at the very base on which they stand. In discarding the Bible as something authoritative on which they should build their lives, homes and churches, liberal “believers” now have no moral and spiritual foundation, other than the doctrines of culture or a clever poem they just read in The New Yorker.
Jesus promised that it was those who heard his words and put them into practice who would enjoy the experience of a life built on “rock” (i.e. something stable, secure and strong), while those who didn’t would feel the ground giving way beneath their feet (cf. Matthew 7:24-27). Sooner or later, most participants in a community, especially a religious one, will start asking questions about authority. “Why should I trust what you’re telling me?” “Why should I give my life to this?” “What makes this a better way than another way?”
Conservative worshipers find that the Bible – despite its numerous interpretative complexities and mysterious elements – is still at the end of the day, largely understandable, highly trustworthy, and profoundly relevant to their day-to-day lives. And…it comes with a defensible authority. It’s not a book they simply believe with fundamentalist blindness. There are substantial, weighty reasons why it can be thought of as more than the work of human hands.
The liberal believer is never taught those reasons. Or comes with a pre-set agenda and doesn’t care to know.
Which is one reason why liberal churches are dying, but conservative churches are thriving.