A new study just unearthed a remarkable finding: conservative doctrine grows churches.
This isn’t necessarily what we’ve heard in recent years. Whether it’s the music, the attractive facility, or the feeling of community, we need something to keep the church growing—something besides biblical teaching. How surprising, then, that David Millard Haskell, Kevin N. Flatt, and Stephanie Burgoyne have found that doctrine grows churches. In their peer-reviewed scholarly article for the Review of Religious Research, a prestigious journal, the trio present findings among mainstream Canadian churches showing that—contra the stereotypes—doctrinally conservative churches that reach out aggressively often grow. Churches that soften biblical teachings and de-emphasize evangelism often shrink.
What might these findings mean for the future of evangelicalism? Here are four quick takeaways.
1. This reverses conventional wisdom regarding pulpit theology.
As Haskell put it in a Washington Post op-ed, we had been told that liberal doctrine was needed to draw people, but the data show the reverse is true. It turns out people actually want to be called to believe in something, belong to somewhere, commit to Someone. Not everyone is drawn to conservative biblical doctrine, of course. But many are. What an encouragement this is to Bible-loving, gospel-preaching pastors and churches.
Management philosophies and business methods have left a generation of ministers hungry, even starving, for a better ecclesial model. We’re seeing signs of this interest all over—as an example, here’s one prominent voice in the Church of England calling for pastors to own their theological birthright. The conventional wisdom still has a hold on many, but its grasp is slipping.
2. This frees pastors and congregations from the pressure of innovation.
The pastor need not be a showman, a genius, or an activist. The pastor can preach the Word and lead the flock in evangelizing the lost, and God will do the work. Of course, we don’t need studies and articles to tell us this; Scripture gives us all the confidence and foundation we need for ministry (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). But it’s always nice to see truth cut through stereotypes.
Knowing the power of biblical doctrine and biblical evangelism helps God’s people in all kinds of ways. We’re free to shape our budgets as if the Word does the work. If God’s Word doesn’t return void, then we can give generously to missions, ministry training, and gospel-driven philanthropy. If Scripture has tremendous horsepower, then we can free our pastors to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word, knowing that this work is of immense importance.
3. A doctrine-driven ministry requires doctrine-driven training.
If sound doctrine and faithful evangelism build the body, then we want our future pastors to go deep with God, receiving as much training, education, and ministry experience as they can get. The biblical languages, exegetical studies, theology courses, studies in history, and more are not flights of academic fancy, but opportunities for profound intellectual, theological, and ministerial formation.
We do well to remember that the church is a movement of God’s Spirit. The pastor isn’t a professional. The pastor is a holy mystic, a spiritual shepherd. He’s closer to the wild-bearded wilderness prophet than the Fortune-100 CEO. In a materialist world that trains us to distrust our thirst for transcendence, the pastor lifts people’s eyes to the heavens. We should support theological training—through seminaries and church internships and more—that encourage the future pastors of God’s church to embrace ministry as a holy calling, one staked upon the truth of God (John 17:17).
4. We need to minister biblical doctrine, not just hold it.
It’s not enough, of course, to simply hold to healthy doctrine. It’s possible to grow a church numerically without really emphasizing or proclaiming the doctrine listed out on your statement of faith. In an age like ours, there’s a real danger of checking the doctrine box yet ministering not Scripture but a therapeutic, self-bettering prosperity gospel. This may in fact be a worse threat than outright liberalism, since it’s harder to spot and hollows out the faith from the inside.
In contrast to such self-driven ministry, we mediate something far more powerful: the wisdom of God. The grace of God. The truth of God. It’s found in our confession of faith, but it’s equally found in the church’s preaching, the fountainhead of the congregation (2 Tim. 4:2). The pastor ministers the grace of cruciform truth because this, and this alone, is the power of God. There’s nothing better, nothing stronger, nothing greater, nothing more generous in hope, nothing the human heart and mind and soul needs more. The pastor is pre-eminently a theologian—a theologian of grace. This is what we need him to be.
Biblical truth pervades all the ministry of the assembly—it’s in our counseling sessions, our discipleship groups, our evangelistic opportunities. Doctrine—transformative biblical teaching—is what the pastor preaches, it’s what shapes the flock, and it’s what the flock offers in its outreach to lost friends, family members, and neighbors.
Hard Business. Divine Business.
Ministry is hard business. But it’s also divine business. Occasionally, we receive reminder of this truth from surprising voices.
The academic world, and the data it leans on, is in this case reinforcing what God has promised us as an iron law of the universe: Jesus will build his church, and none can stay his hand. We learn afresh what he already taught us: The gates of hell cannot overcome those who have overcome the world.