It started with a mystery.
For years the Canadian mainline Protestant church had withered. Churches were closing down, their buildings being co-opted into businesses, all of it following the narrative that Christianity was increasingly irrelevant to secularized Western countries. But hiding in the wreckage of the mainline collapse were a few thriving churches who were experiencing explosive growth.
These outlier churches led two Canadian academics, Wilfrid Laurier University sociologist David Haskell and Kevin Flatt, professor of church history at Hamilton’s Redeemer University College, to ask a simple question: Why are some mainline churches growing while the rest die?
The answer published by Maclean’s, an influential Canadian magazine, was that pastors who preach and practice a theologically orthodox faith are more likely to see growing churches. When it came to the timelessness of biblical truth, the historicity of the Gospels, miracles and evangelism, pastors who affirmed orthodox Christian teachings were coupled with congregations that agreed.
Haskell and Flatt found that many of these pastors grew up around a more evangelical Christian faith and brought much of that training to the mainline tradition. They speculated this is perhaps because evangelicalism in Canada holds a strong correlation for many Canadians to a more politicized American Christianity they find objectionable. These pastors also were more inclined to incorporate newer methods in making their churches seem relevant—from modern technology, to outreach events, to more sophisticated methods of tracking growth.
The study is fascinating for an American church culture arguably in the early stages of the typical Western church decline. What these mainline pastors have found is that a blend of cultural analysis, intentional evangelism and commitment to the Gospel is still a powerful tool capable of turning around dying churches.
Rev. Canon Barry Parker, head pastor of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in downtown Toronto, has seen his church grow at approximately 5 percent a year, far outpacing the 2 percent decline most mainline churches are facing. In the Maclean’s article Parker says the secret to the church’s success is simple: “Everything is on the table, except the Gospel.”