Last month, two Canadians completed a five year study of four non-Catholic Christian denominations in Ontario (Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Church of Canada) to determine the importance of orthodox theology in the vitality of a mainline Protestant Christian community. They split their subjects pretty much evenly so that half of the people in the study were attending growing communities and half were attending shrinking communities.
The findings were of absolutely no surprise to me. Our culture is largely irreligious and pretty much ignores doctrine (and religion in general) completely. Some Christian ministers have sought to speak to the culture without being confrontational, without challenging the culture, and in doing so leave out a great deal of orthodox theology. They only speak to the individual and make religion not a call to conversion but a call to self-improvement and worldly happiness/success. Joel Osteen comes to mind. His “preaching” does mention God, but only impersonally. He hardly ever talks about Jesus and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, rather than a “relationship” of some sort with an amorphous “God”. He never talks about our sinfulness, about our need for repentance and conversion. But he certainly has a lot to say about personal happiness in this world and financial success.
The most interesting statistic from the study, in my opinion, was the difference in orthodoxy between the pastor and the congregation. In growing communities, the pastor was more orthodox than the congregation. Not to a large degree, but noticeable. One example was on a teaching you would think would be a given for anyone who refers to themselves as a Christian: Jesus rising from the dead on Easter with a real flesh and blood body. In growing communities, 93% of pastors and 83% of members agreed.
In shrinking communities, on the other hand, 56% of pastors and 67% of members agreed. Think about that. Barely half of all Christian ministers in shrinking communities in these mainline Protestant denominations in Canada believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and only two-thirds of their members believe. I just shake my head at that. If you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, why in the world would you consider yourself a Christian?
The exact numbers differed on other teachings, but not the general trend. On what you’d think would be another given for Christians – the belief that God can answer prayers with a miracle – 100% of pastors with a growing community agreed and 90% of their members agreed. In shrinking communities, however, 80% of the members agreed but only FORTY percent of the pastors agreed.
The pastors of growing communities were always more orthodox than their members, even if only by a small amount, while the pastors of shrinking communities were always less orthodox than their members, sometimes to a very large degree.
The finding from the study leads to a huge question. When the culture is largely turning away from religion in general, why do theologically orthodox mainline Protestant communities tend to grow while theologically heterodox mainline Protestant communities tend to not grow?
The survey found that the less orthodox clergy focused on the culture’s antipathy toward religion as the explanation for why their membership was shrinking. And according to these pastors, the main reason evangelical Protestant more often than mainline Protestant denominations had growing communities was a result of advertisement on the part of the evangelicals.
But the growing mainline Protestant communities faced the same conditions and managed to grow without the advertising often associated with large evangelical communities. The difference is, of course, those growing communities follow more orthodox theology.
Or in the wording of an article talking about the study, while everyone was aware of the demand side of the issue (less people in general interested in religion), only the orthodox communities were addressing the supply side of the issue (what is it that the people who are at least somewhat interested in religion are looking for?).
Orthodox theology, of course. No matter how much the culture at large and progressive clergy say it does not, doctrine matters. Faith without content eventually fades away, and when it does the people also fade away.
We Catholics see the same thing happening in our parishes. Those parishes that have wishy-washy theology, that don’t talk about the need for regular interior conversion, that don’t ever talk about the reality of sin and our need for sacramental Confession, that don’t show by reverent action a belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, that don’t offer Bible Study programs, that don’t have prayer groups and popular devotions… basically that don’t have a defined faith in which the people can believe and trust and find hope, those parishes are all shrinking.
It’s the same with vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated religious life. Dioceses where there is no mention of the need to pray for vocations and encourage the orthodox formation of new priests have no or very few vocations. Religious orders that don’t faithfully follow their Rule and don’t have Jesus as the focus of their mission have no vocations.
The content of theology matters. When that content is presented truthfully, faithfully, sincerely, people stand up and take notice. When that content is weak or dismissed as unimportant, people drift away. Why show up if I can just as easily worship at home by myself? Why pray if God doesn’t listen? Why belong if faith is individualistic rather than relational?
Why believe anything specific if all paths eventually lead to God?
The Good News is not that we can fix ourselves and attain earthly prosperity. The Good News is not that through the proper meditative technique we can feel peaceful. The Good News is not that we can seek God however we want, and any method is ok.
The Good News is that no matter how bad this world may appear, no matter how much suffering we may experience, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel, no matter what grave evil we may have done or still be doing, Jesus wants to lead us to unending joy in the next life if we will let him.
Not amorphous feel-good Jesus who gives us a kind look and tells us that whatever we feel like doing is ok by him. Jesus who suffered and died for our sake. Jesus who rose from the dead to show us that death does not have the final say. Jesus who can perform miracles. Jesus who is worthy of our trust, who is eternal, who is all good, who is perfect, who is worthy of worship.
But most importantly of all, Jesus who reaches out to us in our brokenness to heal us. Even when we are not lovable and do not deserve it. Because he loves us.