data from the Fact2000 study
Fifty-one percent of congregations report they have grown in the previous five years . Although Historically Black Denominations used a somewhat different question, the direction and vitality of their growth is essentially the same.
Congregations grow in different ways. Our data show that they grow by:
- Cultural affinity, finding “our kind of people”
- Community involvement, keeping in touch
- Organizational focus, vision in action
- Offering both care and discipline for members
- Finding inspiration in worship
- Promotional programs, which may not produce growth but strengthen congregational vitality
Congregations grow in locations where they find like-minded people in the demographics of their communities. New suburban communities especially are favorable to growth of faith communities, where religious participation is supported by family composition, higher educational levels and income, available teenagers and young adults, and a higher percentage of male participants.
Opposite demographic factors are associated with membership decline, such as lower education, lower income, more elderly, more women, and, for congregations, more lifelong members.
Congregations with high concentrations of families with children are growing — up to a point. Those few congregations with 80 percent or more families with children show markedly less growth.
Contrary to some published experts, congregations with a strong commitment to social justice and with direct participation in community outreach ministries are more likely to be growing than other congregations. This pattern of social involvement contributing to congregational growth is true across all denominational groups. But recently organized growing congregations tend to have fewer outreach ministries than older growing congregations that are firmly established. It takes these new congregations time to mobilize their outreach.
Growing congregations, as noted earlier, reflect a combination of factors that include denominational loyalty, congregational vitality, confidence in the future, and serving as a moral beacon to the community.
Additionally, both a clear sense of mission and a crisp organizational style have a powerful, positive influence on the capacity of congregations to attract and sustain new members.
A combined emphasis on discipline and personal relationships contributes to member growth.
The bonding of members into the group also is essential in the character of growing congregations. Congregational leaders must show that they know and care about their members.
Uplifting worship and spiritual nurture make a genuine contribution to congregational growth in every denominational group.
In a later section on worship, we will learn that the factors that contribute to a satisfying worship experience are significantly different among faith groups and among generations. Protestant groups that have emphasized contemporary worship and electronic musical instruments, rather than traditional forms, show a dramatic increase in their appeal to new members, for example.
Of the ten promotional programs listed in the survey, the largest majority of congregations report that they most frequently engage in clergy calling on prospects, laity calling on prospects, encouraging members to witness to others about their own faith, and using newspaper ads. Larger congregations are more likely to use mailings and mass media, city and suburban congregations lean toward revivals and big events, and Evangelical Protestant churches are more likely to be engaged in evangelical campaigns.
P.T Barnum, the famous circus entrepreneur (but not remembered for his religious zeal), admitted that he knew that at least half of his advertising was wasted, but he did not know which half. The results of this survey suggest a similar conclusion. Although selected promotional programs apparently are effective for various faith groups in particular communities, in the aggregate none of the various programs for promoting congregational growth appear more than marginally effective. Thus it is difficult to pinpoint which promotional activities are likely to result in congregational growth
However, participation in promotional programs often impacts congregational vitality more than growth.
That is, the major impact of promotional programs is typically their positive effect on the energy and commitment of members. For example, the use of several promotional programs — radio advertising, evangelistic campaigns, personal witness, revivals and big events — is directly associated with congregations reporting high vitality.
** Data from other sources (such as annual denominational reports) suggest a slight “halo effect” concerning growth in this report, that is, that congregational observers are giving the most favorable interpretation of their faith communities’ real conditions. Although their reported figures may be slightly – but not greatly – inflated, we believe these observers are providing significant insight about what works, and what does not, in their congregations.