Ecumenical study shows why congregations grow

Analysis available of participating Episcopal congregations
January 3, 2007

A plan to recruit and incorporate newcomers, clarity of mission and ministry, contemporary worship, involvement of children in worship, geographic location, a website and the absence of conflict are key factors in why some congregations in America are growing, according to the latest national survey of U.S. faith communities.

The survey, sponsored by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership (CCSP), found that wanting to grow is not enough. Congregations that grow must plan for growth.

"Congregations that developed a plan to recruit members in the last year were much more likely to grow than congregations that had not," according to a report on the survey written by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

The survey findings are available in "FACTs on Growth." The data was taken from the Faith Communities Today 2005 (FACT2005) survey of 884 randomly sampled congregations of all faith traditions in the United States. The survey updates results from a survey taken in 2000, and is the latest in CCSP's series of trend-tracking national surveys of U.S. congregations.

Hadaway told ENS that the survey showed that the average so-called "mainline" congregation was less likely to grow than non-denominational, evangelical congregations. More surprising to many people, Hadaway said, is that Roman Catholic congregations are not growing in a way comparable to the increased number of Roman Catholics in the United States.

The report notes that "when all congregations are combined, there is very little relationship between growth and theological orientation. In fact, the proportion growing is highest on the two end points: predominantly conservative congregations and liberal congregations (growth rates of 38% and 39%, respectively)."

"More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission and purpose," the report continues. "Growing churches are clear about why they exist and about what they are to be doing."

An analysis of the data about Episcopal congregations gathered by the survey is available here.

Among the information gathered about Episcopalians are these findings:

  • Episcopal congregations are varied in their theological outlook. Relatively few (only 8%), however, say that the majority of their members are predominantly liberal.
  • Conservative Episcopal congregations were much more likely to have experienced very serious conflict during the last five years than moderate or liberal congregations (a similar, but weaker relationship was also discovered in the FACT 2000 study).
  • Predominantly liberal and somewhat liberal congregations are somewhat more likely to have experienced growth during the last five years than more conservative congregations.
  • Responses to: "is like a close knit family," "celebrates its Episcopal heritage," and "desires growth in attendance and membership" were unrelated to growth.
  • More than half of Episcopal parishes and missions (60%) offer two or more services on the weekend. Worship style varies to some degree among services in three quarters of the congregations that report more than one weekend service.
  • Only 15% of congregations report that their primary worship service has changed a lot in format or style during the last five years. Most congregations report that worship has either changed a little (31%) or changed moderately (30%).

The Episcopal analysis also covers issues of finances, program and ministries, clergy service in congregations, physical plants, congregational identity, member demographics, and recruitment of new members and evangelism.

The CCSP is a collaborative, multifaith coalition of American faith communities affiliated with Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Researchers, consultants and program staff representing 39 denominations and faith groups contributed to the FACT2005 survey. FACT/CCSP's research-based resources are based on the belief that all communities of faith encounter common issues and benefit from one another's experiences.

David A. Roozen, CCSP's director and professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said in a news release that the latest report "tests the continuing salience of long ‘taken for granted' principles of growth (e.g., location, conservative theology) as well as the more recently proposed (e.g., contemporary worship, spiritual practices and purposefulness)."

"Perhaps most importantly, it suggests several newly emergent dynamics to consider (e.g., the potential for growth in downtown areas and within multi racial/ethnic congregations)," Roozen said.

He added that the report is a "helpful and important follow-up" to the "Pockets of Vitality" analysis of the ground-breaking FACT2000 national survey

Among the other findings in the new FACTs on Growth report:

  • Congregations that change worship format and style are more likely to grow. More than half the congregations that use contemporary styles of worship have experienced substantial growth since 2000. Frequency is important as well: The more worship services a congregation holds, the more likely it is to have grown. Over half of the congregations that use drums and or electric guitars often or always in their worship services have experienced "substantial growth" from 2000 to 2005, the report says. "The relationship is fairly strong in the overall set of congregations, but considerably stronger among evangelical churches and weakest among mainline churches," according to the report.
  • Congregations located in new suburbs are more likely to experience growth. But surprisingly the second best area for growth is the downtown of metropolitan areas.
  • Congregations that have experienced major conflict are quite likely to have declined in attendance. The strongest correlate of growth is the absence of serious conflict.
  • Congregations that have started or maintained a website in the past year are most likely to grow. The effort to have a website indicates that the congregation is outward looking and willing to change by non-traditional means, the study found.

    While most congregations in America are composed of a single racial/ethnic group, those that are multi-racial are most likely to have experienced strong growth in worship attendance.

  • More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission and purpose. Growing churches are clear about why they exist and about what they are to be doing.

    Congregations that involve children in worship are more likely to experience significant growth. Also, important to growth is the ability of congregations to attract young adults and children with families.

  • Almost all congregations say they want to grow, but it takes intentionality and action for growth to occur. Congregations that developed a plan to recruit members in the last year were more likely to grow than congregations that had not. Particularly helpful in achieving growth are sponsorship of a program or event to attract non-members or the existence of support groups.

Full color, printed copies of the survey can be ordered here. Single copies of the 17-page booklet cost $8.50 including postage and handling; discounts are available on multiple copies. For special orders and questions, contact Mary Jane Ross, at Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research, (860) 509-9543 or mross@hartsem.edu.

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