New Study: Liberal Theology Doesn’t Save Shrinking Congregations

by Avery Foley on February 2, 2017

Shrinking church congregations have been a problem in the West for many years now, particularly for mainline Protestant denominations. For example, “since the 1960s, Canada’s mainline Protestant denominations—made up of the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United churches—have lost anywhere between 40 to 60 per cent of their membership.”1

Pastors have been encouraged to adopt liberal theology to stem this exodus. But a new study suggests liberal congregations are still shrinking, while conservative congregations are growing.

Change or Die

In a summary of his research, David Millard Haskell, a professor of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, pointed out that 20 years ago John Shelby Spong, an American bishop in the Episcopalian Church, provided an influential solution to halt this loss in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die. His basic idea was that,

congregations would grow if [churches] abandoned their literal interpretation of the Bible and transformed along with changing times.2

Spong was attempting to “[give] intellectual respectability to religious ideas that, on the surface, might appear far-fetched to modern audiences.” Due to the praise this approach received, it’s been practiced for years in many mainline churches as well as taught in seminaries. But has this liberal teaching caused churches to grow?

Liberal Churches Dying, Conservative Churches Thriving

Not according to Haskell’s research. During a five-year study of 22 mainline congregations in my home province of Ontario, Canada, he and his colleagues discovered something that went against conventional wisdom—“Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline.”

Robbing God’s Word of its Power

It shouldn’t be surprising to Bible-believing Christians that liberal theology doesn’t attract crowds. Liberal theology, such as that advocated by Spong, ignores, distorts, and compromises God’s Word. What is the point of going to church if the Bible is simply a book of spiritual and moral lessons that may or may not be true?

In this case, church becomes more of a social club that requires little from those who attend, so why not just go to the gym, golf course, or the bar instead? In trying to make the Bible “palatable” to those who willfully reject the supernatural anyway (2 Peter 3:5), they’ve simply robbed God’s Word of its power.

But God’s Word and good doctrine is powerful. That’s why we read that,

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
And take . . . the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17)

Ministers of the gospel are commended for teaching and practicing sound doctrine.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed (1 Timothy 4:6).

The key to church growth isn’t a watering down of God’s Word. Pastors and teachers are called to teach sound doctrine, not man’s reinterpretation and compromise of God’s Word.

Young People Weren’t Taught To Connect the Bible with Real Life

In 2009 Answers in Genesis commissioned America’s Research Group to study why so many young people are leaving the church by their 20s. The results of the in-depth study of twentysomethings who had left the church were quite revealing.3

Most young people either never had their questions answered or were given answers that compromised God’s Word.

Throughout their many years in church and Sunday school, young people were rarely ever taught to defend their faith. They weren’t taught that the Bible provides the true biological, astronomical, geological, and anthropological history of the universe. The Bible wasn’t connected and grounded in true history.

Most young people either never had their questions answered or were given answers that compromised God’s Word by adding man’s ideas into the text and reinterpreting God’s clear words. Those who were given such an answer usually recognized, and were repelled by, the hypocrisy they saw in teaching the Bible but not accepting its authority or believing what it says.

Teach Them God’s Word and Solid Answers

According to this recent study, conservative Canadian churches are growing. Why? Well, because they treat the Bible as the infallible Word of God that it is—an attractive aroma to His people (2 Corinthians 2:14–16). Perhaps they even teach their young people to defend their faith. If we want to see a new reformation in this generation, it needs to begin with teaching young people—the future leaders of the church—to know what they believe and why they believe it. They need solid answers to their questions and need to see how the Bible connects with real history.

Pastors, Sunday school teachers, and parents—it’s your job to ensure the next generation has a firm foundation! Get equipped with the many resources we offer at or in our online store.


  1. David Millard Haskell, “Why liberal theology has led to shrinking congregations,” Toronto Star, December 6, 2016,
  2. David Haskell, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving,” The Washington Post, January 4, 2017,
  3. The survey was published in the book Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do to Stop It.


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