data from the Fact2000 study
In addition to worship, the common member-oriented program activities of congregations have remarkable similarities. Programs to encourage spiritual nurture (such as education, Scripture study, prayer and meditation) are most common, while programs for social and personal enrichment (self help, book/issue discussions, sports teams) are less frequent, but not unimportant.
Although the content may be different, the programs serve a few, commonly held goals: namely, spiritual growth for the members, artistic expression of the faith and support for teenagers, young adults and parents/families. Providing members the opportunity for community service — reported by 85 percent of the congregations — apparently expresses both spiritual compassion and social concern. Fewer than half the congregations reported programs on self-development, sports, and physical fitness.
Denominations show distinctive patterns that reflect their religious and social heritage. For example:
- Catholic/Orthodox congregations more frequently sponsor programs of theological or doctrinal training, spiritual retreats and programs for young adults and marriage enrichment.
- Historically Black churches are more likely to emphasize prayer groups and opportunities for community service.
- Liberal and Moderate Protestant more distinctively support opportunities for community services and the arts.
- Evangelical Protestants are high in support of prayer groups.
Congregations reporting high vitality sponsor more programs for spiritual nurture. In fact, congregations with higher scores on vitality also are more likely to sponsor prayer groups, retreats, and parent/marriage enrichment programs — which in turn can escalate the feelings of congregational vitality. But this kind of energy is not limited to spiritual nurture. These same congregations are more likely to support all sorts of artistic and even athletic activities.
In developing member-oriented programs, size (along with community location) makes the most significant difference.
While Sunday School (or equivalent), Scripture study and prayer groups are the most universal programs (over 80 percent even among the smallest congregations), other programs for spiritual development seem to require a minimum critical mass of participants, funding and building space to sustain the activity.
Larger congregations, therefore, have the option of developing a much broader range of programs (for example, arts, music, and drama).
The breadth of programs in which a congregation is involved is directly related to congregational wealth and resources, human and material.
Center city churches rival the new suburban congregations in the breadth of programs they offer, while a narrower range of programs are offered by congregations in rural and town settings.
Congregations with the broadest offerings of programs report greater vitality among their members. This combination of program choices and congregational vitality appears to have the effect of attracting new members to the congregation. Thus growth is associated with breadth of programs overall. More programs appear to help congregations grow, which is an option more available to larger congregations.