New study: decline in mainline church attendance linked to progressive theology

Church attendance for progressive denominations in free fall
Church attendance for progressive denominations in free fall

I’m shocked and delighted to see this new study reported in the Weekly Standard, of all places. I guess everyone has an intuition that conservative churches that focus on the Bible have been growing in attendance. And progressive churches that focus on feelings and peer approval are in decline. But now we have some numbers that link the changes in attendance  to specific theological beliefs.


A literal reading of scripture and faith in an interventionist God strengthen church attendance. According to a new academic study of what drives a mainline Protestant church to die out or succeed, preaching these two theological precepts makes all the difference.

The forthcoming article, entitled “Theology Matters,” confirms a truth universally acknowledged, or reasonably intuited anyway. The Christ-optional, Gospel-as-metaphor, liberal-progressive mainline Protestantism borne of our secular age keeps so loose a lock on wandering souls that they wander away—choosing boozy brunch, perhaps, over pew-sitting.

The authors, Drs. David Haskell, Kevin Flatt and Stephanie Burgoyne, used five years’ data gathered from 2,255 attendees of Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Church of Canada parishes across the province of Ontario. (The United Church of Canada boasts an ongoing, unsurprising self-parody in an atheist minister no one seems to have ginned up the nerve to defrock.)

Approximately half of the authors’ subjects belong to growing parishes within these three mainline denominations, the other half to shrinking ones. Their most striking survey result finds churchgoers at shrinking parishes more doctrinally committed than their ministers.

That’s true about the atheist woman who is leading one of the denominations into decline:

An ordained minister with the United Church of Canada is resisting efforts to oust her from the pulpit because she is an atheist.

“I don’t believe in … the god called God,” Gretta Vosper told the Globe and Mail. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

She said that she believes the Bible is “mythology,” and denies that Jesus is the Son of God.

The United Church of Canada has majored in progressive politics . Progressive politics is more important to them than apologetics and theology. From what I’ve read, their ministers are more likely to affirm the writings of progressive atheists like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg as “infallible” than the Christian Scriptures. We have similar problems in the USA with ELCA, PCUSA, ECUSA, and other far left denominations.

Church attendance by denomination, ages 23-35
Church attendance by denomination, ages 23-35

Mainline Roman Catholicism, which focuses less on the Bible and more on political goals like Obamacare, climate change alarmism and amnesty is also in decline. They are declining faster than any other denomination.

Here’s a quote from the study that breaks down the theology by change in church attendance:

When asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb” 93% of growing church pastors agreed, 83% of growing church attendees agreed, 67% of declining church attendees agreed, and just 56% of declining church pastors agreed.

When asked if “God performs miracles in answer to prayer” 100% of the growing church pastors agreed, 90% of the growing church attendees agreed, 80% of the declining church attendees agreed, and just 44% of the declining church pastors agreed.

I think the problem is that when a minister quotes the Bible and espouses traditional theology, people can sense that this teaching is from God, because it is at odds with their selfish desires. They understand the authenticity of it, because it calls them higher. Progressives like Greta Vosper tell people that their current sinfulness is just fine, since the goal of spirituality is to look inside yourself for guidance so that you feel good. But does sinfulness really deliver results over the long term? We were designed by God for righteousness, not selfishness. I am pretty sure that Jesus knows a little more about human nature than Greta Vosper does.

Consider the words of Daniel 2:

1 In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep.

2 So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king,

3 he said to them, “I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.”

4 Then the astrologers answered the king, “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

5 The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble.

6 But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”

7 Once more they replied, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

8 Then the king answered, “I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided:

9 If you do not tell me the dream, there is only one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me.”

10 The astrologers answered the king, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer.

11 What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.”

12 This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon.

13 So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death, and men were sent to look for Daniel and his friends to put them to death.

14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact.

15 He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel.

16 At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.

17 Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

18 He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.

19 During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven

20 and said:

“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.

21 He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.

22 He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.

23 I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
You have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you,
you have made known to us the dream of the king.”

24Then Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, “Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.”

25 Arioch took Daniel to the king at once and said, “I have found a man among the exiles from Judah who can tell the king what his dream means.”

26 The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?”

27 Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about,

28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you were lying in bed are these:

29 “As Your Majesty was lying there, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen.

30 As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.

People can see right through progressive “spirituality”. They see that this is man-made humanism designed to make people feel better. They know that this is just one person’s opinion, and not from God. The blind leading the blind, as the Bible says. Greta Vosper isn’t deriving her worldview from a truth-centered investigation of science, history or logic. It’s feelings all the way down, and that’s not useful to people who are looking for objective truth and purpose.

6 thoughts on “New study: decline in mainline church attendance linked to progressive theology”

  1. I never focus too much on religions growing, because false ones can grow (cults like Mormonism grow with legalism, Islam grows with violence) and good ones can shrink. But on balance authentic seekers will not stick around a “Christian” Left church long. The 24×7 mockery of God will drive them away.


  2. I thought it was particularly hilarious that pastors who don’t believe in the power of prayer have churches which shrink. Gee. What a surprise.

    Indeed – and take it from someone who lives in a place where church membership is not an entree into polite society – when there’s no real “reason” to go to church, the only people who show up are the truly faithful.


  3. As a former ‘liberal christian’, I can say this comes as absolutely no surprise to those of us who have tried to care about such pointless, ritualistic social clubs. In the end, liberal denominations are absolutely worthless (even from a secular perspective). If you’re drifting towards a vague secular humanism or emotion-fuelled spiritualism, you really don’t need to pay a silly agnostic pastor/bishop/priest for the privilege every week and listen to them prattling on about their pet social cause or mindlessly reciting what they perceive to be ‘fairy tales’ or ‘mythology’. Who in their right mind would be bothered getting out of their beds to fund that? And consequently, they shrivel up and die. Such denominations instantly make themselves obsolete by embracing this relativistic nonsense.


  4. Many self-professed Christians don’t remember (or may not know) about Jesus’ words about being ‘friends with the world,’ unfortunately.

    That or they are obsessed with ‘being relevant’ or more specifically, “Change your beliefs to be relevant to society” rather than contextualization (“express the timeless and time-tested truths in culturally-appropriate and in appropriate language”).

    We can of course go back to theology to draw an analogy.

    It’s almost Advent: about the first and second coming of Christ. And the key doctrine here is Incarnation: Jesus came in the flesh and dwelt among us.

    Jesus did not change God’s message, but was the perfect embodiment of God’s holiness, love, and justice. Jesus did not change his essence.

    However, Jesus did come in a form we would recognize and spoke in human languages and demonstrated God’s perfection to us.


  5. The Theologian Henry Alford writes concerning the letters to the churches in Revelation;

    THE EPISTLES TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES. Views have considerably differed respecting the character of these Epistles, whether they are to be regarded as simply historical, or historico-prophetical, or simply prophetical. The point on which all, I presume, will be agreed is, that the words contained in these Epistles are applicable to and intended for the guidance, warning, and encouragement of the whole Church Catholic, and its several parts, throughout all time.

    We find in the Pulpit Commentary;
    The epistles to the seven Churches. Once more we have to consider rival interpretations. Of these we may safely set aside all those which make the seven letters to be pictures of successive periods in the history of the Church. On the other hand, we may safely deny that the letters are purely typical, and relate to nothing definite in history. Rather they are both historical and typical. They refer primarily to the actual condition of the several Churches in St. John’s own day, and then are intended for the instruction, encouragement, and warning of the Church and the Churches throughout all time. The Catholic Church, or any one of its branches, will at any period find itself reflected in one or other of the seven Churches. For two Churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, there is nothing but praise; for two, Sardis and Laodicea, nothing but blame; for the majority, and among them the chief Church of all, Ephesus, with Pergamum and Thyatira, praise and blame in different degrees intermingled.

    We may all have varying views, but I believe these letters are not just historical, but mirror images of the church through the ages. It seems plain to me that we have entered the age of the Laodicean age or the rise of the Laodicean church.

    Side Note: Back in Alford’s day, Catholic meant universal church, not the RCC. The Pulpit Commentary refers to the Roman Catholic Church. Something to keep in mind when reading older commentaries.


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