data from the Fact2000 study
Standards of personal morality and public justice offer a third source of cohesion that can be foundational for faith communities.
Moral boundaries make a difference. Two out of three congregations that emphasize personal and public morality also report healthy finances and membership growth.
Congregations that place less emphasis on these standards are more likely to report plateaued or declining membership.
A large majority of the most vital congregations report that they have a clarity of purpose and explicit member expectations that are strictly enforced. This is especially true among newly organized congregations in Western states. As congregations age, this clarity declines consistently and progressively — suggesting that expectations become more implicit with the institutional aging process.
Both purpose and strictness are directly related to membership growth and financial health. Larger congregations are more likely to be clear about their purpose.
Congregations are more likely to draw moral boundaries if they are located in newer suburbs, towns and rural areas. Congregations in older suburbs and cities were less openly demanding. Larger congregations are more likely to emphasize personal morality, but the claim to be a moral beacon was not related to congregational age or size. Evangelical Protestants, especially in the South, are more likely to establish demands in personal morality and to see themselves as a moral beacon to the community. Liberal Protestants are less likely to express these expectations. Congregations that draw moral boundaries report stronger financial commitment of their members.
Beyond personal morality, some congregations have strong, faith-based standards that enable them to engage their communities.
They are willing to fight for issues of social justice, and to develop appropriate outreach ministries. Since many are lacking in financial resources, they would seem excellent candidates for government supported “charitable choice” programs of social concern. This pattern of social involvement contributing to congregational growth is sustained across denominational groups, although particular faith communities place special emphasis on different aspects of community needs.