Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Being liberal, or Liberal

The party and some churches face similar challenges

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Last month, as I followed the Liberal party convention, I took note of the challenges facing that party -- things like declining membership, lack of funds, the need to attract more youth, how to reach out to new followers. At some point in the proceedings, it suddenly occurred to me: I've heard all this before.

Where? In the church press, that's where. In fact, if you replace the words "Liberal party" with the name of almost any Canadian mainline denomination, you'd pretty much have the same discussion.

All of which got me thinking: If the challenges facing the Liberal party are similar to those facing some churches, is there anything Liberals could learn from them about why some denominations grow, while others decline?

One of the earliest and most influential studies on this topic occurred in 1972 when Dean M. Kelley published Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.

Kelley, who was writing about the American religious scene, concluded that growing churches provide clear-cut, compelling answers to questions concerning the meaning of life, mobilize their members' energies for shared purposes and place high demands on their members in terms of conduct and activities.

Weak churches, on the other hand, allow a diversity of theological viewpoints, do not command much of their members' time or effort, and promote few, if any, distinctive rules of conduct.

More than 20 years later, researchers Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge and Donald A. Luidens conducted a similar study. They reported their findings in an article titled Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline in the March, 1993 issue of First Things.

During their research, they found the single best predictor of whether people stuck with church was whether they had a strong and deep commitment to orthodox Christian beliefs, including the centrality of salvation through Jesus Christ.

"Virtually all our baby boomers who believe this are active members of a church," they wrote. "Ninety-five per cent of the drop-outs... do not believe it."

Orthodox Christian belief, which conservative churches espouse, "seems to impel people to commit their time and other resources to a distinctively Christian regimen of witness and obedience in the company of other believers," they wrote.

Liberal Christianity, on the other hand, "is not an empowering system of belief but rather a set of conjectures concerning religious matters. It supports honesty and other moral virtues, and it encourages tolerance and civility in a pluralistic society, but it does not inspire the kind of conviction that creates strong religious communities."

They also found that a willingness to witness about faith is another key difference between conservative and liberal churches.

"One indication that lay liberalism is not an energizing 'faith' is the fact its advocates told us they rarely attempt to convert anyone to their point of view," they wrote. "Moreover, they seldom discuss religious matters even with their family and closest friends."

In 2005 another study, by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, found churches that were more likely to grow had the following attributes: They were more open to change, more actively engaged in outreach, welcomed people of diverse races and backgrounds and possessed a strong sense of mission and purpose.

They also found a strong correlation between growth and the number of youth involved in a church. In all the churches they studied -- liberal or conservative -- "the greater the youth involvement, the greater the church's growth."

Clearly, there are differences between political parties and churches (although for some, politics is like a religion).

But there are similarities, too. As interim Liberal leader Bob Rae put it in his closing speech at the party's recent convention, Liberals are interested in the same things as churches -- things like renewal, change, defining their purpose and vision, growth and welcoming youth and newcomers.

Liberals began their new journey of discovery last May; churches have been on this path for decades. Perhaps some church groups can provide the Liberals with a lesson or two.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 J13

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