If Congregations Can Change, They Can Grow
Congregations that are spiritually vital and alive, have strong, permanent leadership, and enjoy joyful, innovative and inspirational worship are more likely to experience growth, this 2011 study found.
Other factors that support growth are being located in the South; having more weekly worship services; and having a clear sense of mission and purpose.
These are among the conclusions that stood out in a Faith Communities Today report on American congregations titled “Facts on Growth: 2010”. “They almost seem commonsensical,” said David Roozen, Director of Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research, “but it is surprising how many struggling congregations puzzle over the challenges of growth.”
FACT released this report to help and provoke the reflection of just such congregations — those seeking to discern which issues help and which hinder growth. The author is C. Kirk Hadaway, former Church Officer for Congregational Research, The Episcopal Church.
The report was one in a series produced by The Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership (CCSP), based on a 2010 survey that analyzed responses from 11,077 randomly sampled congregations of all faith traditions in the United States.
“Location, Location, Location used to be the kind way that researchers described the extent to which the growth or decline of American congregations was captive to the demographic changes going on in their immediate neighborhoods,” said Roozen. “Congregations cannot totally ignore what is going on in their context, but the clear message of FACTs on Growth: 2010 is that in today’s world, growth and decline are primarily dependent upon a congregation’s internal culture, program and leadership, and therefore a congregation’s own ability to change and adapt.”
Hadaway wrote, “Decline is more prevalent today than it was five years ago and congregational economics are much more precarious. Still, many congregations in America are growing. What are they like and what are they doing?”
Among the findings in the report:
- In a shift, congregations located in the downtown or central city area are more likely to experience growth than congregations in other locations. Previous surveys found that newer suburbs were associated with the greatest potential for growth.
- The South, from Maryland to Texas, is better for growth than any other region.
- The youngest congregations, those started since 1992, are most likely to grow.
- Growth in predominantly white congregations is less likely, in part because this population has zero growth demographically. The members tend to be older as well and less likely to have contemporary worship services.
- Denomination matters – growth is more likely among conservative Protestant groups and least likely among mainline Protestant congregations.
- There is a clear correlation between growth and the sense that a congregation is spiritually vital and alive along with a clear mission and purpose.
- While only nine percent of congregations have three services on a typical weekend and five percent have four or more, these congregations are more likely to have grown. It is unclear, however, whether churches grow because they have more services or they grow first and add services.
- Where a worship service is considered joyful, a congregation is more likely to experience substantial growth. And congregations that involve children in worship were more likely to experience substantial growth.
- Congregations whose members are heavily involved in recruiting new people have a definite growth advantage, as do congregations that use multiple methods to make follow-up contacts with visitors, that regularly invest in special events or programs to attract people from the community, and whose senior clergy spent priority time in evangelism and recruitment.
- In general, having congregational programs of all kinds is related to growth. Be it Sunday school, Scripture study, fellowship, retreats, youth programs, team sports, or community service, nothing works against growth. The programs that produced the strongest link to growth were (1) young adult activities (2) parenting or marriage enrichment activities and (3) prayer or meditation groups.
- Congregations without a leader or an interim leader are least likely to experience growth.
- Generally, the younger the leader, the more likely a congregation has grown. Leaders 35 to 39 years old are most likely to be in growing congregations.
- Congregations that saw themselves as not that different from other congregations in their area tended to decline.
Faith Communities Today surveys and publications are products of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a collaborative, multifaith coalition of American faith communities affiliated with Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
FACT/CCSP offers research-based resources for congregational development that are useful across faith traditions, believing that all communities of faith encounter common issues and benefit from one another’s experiences. It also informs the public about the contributions of congregations to American society and about the changes affecting and emanating from one of America’s major sources of voluntary association – local congregations.