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Why liberal theology has led to shrinking congregations

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. Some research colleagues and I wanted to find out why.

We'd read the previous academic studies and there was no consensus. Many of the popular texts on the subject, written primarily by mainline theologians, suggested liberal theology was the key to growth. Liberal theology calls clergy and lay people to practice a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible and to temper their belief in supernatural phenomenon in order to make their religious message more palatable for modern audiences.

As a researcher it's not often you make a discovery that flies in the face of conventional wisdom but, when we finished assessing our data, that's what happened. We found it is conservative theology - with its emphasis on the factual truth of scripture and God's activity in the world - that fuels church growth. Liberal theology leads to decline.

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