New Study on Factors Affecting Growing Churches

FACTs on Growth: 2010 is the fourth in a series of national congregational surveys that began in 2000. A composite of 26 surveys, the sample included 11,077 congregations and covers the period 2005-2010.  Broadly representative of US congregations, the study was released in December 2011.  While many of the findings are not new to pastors and others who study growing churches, there are some surprises in addition to confirmations of assumptions. The following are among the study’s key findings.

Congregational Identity and Intentionality

One of the stronger correlates of growth was the extent to which the congregation “has a clear mission and purpose.” For congregations that have such an orientation, growth is quite likely, but for those that do not, very few are growing. Not surprisingly, churches in conservative/evangelical denominations and “other Christian” groups are considerably more likely to “strongly agree” that their congregation has a clear mission and purpose than mainline congregations.

Congregations that say they are willing to change to meet new challenges also tend to be growing congregations.

Congregations that see themselves as “not that different from other congregations in our community” or who are unsure about that difference are more likely to decline than congregations which see themselves as offering something unique or different.

The relationship between wanting to grow and actually experiencing growth is much stronger than it was just five years ago. Apparently, greater intentionality is required than in the past. Growth requires intentionality, but it also requires action and the involvement of leaders, members and active participants. Recruitment success results not just from official programs and events, but also from the behavior of members who promote the congregation and invite others to attend and join.

Congregational Leadership

What leaders do is also related to congregational growth and decline. The three areas of leadership activity most strongly related to growth were: 1) evangelism or recruitment; 2) developing and promoting a vision and purpose for the congregation; and 3) teaching people about the faith and scripture. Also helpful to growth were recruiting and training lay leaders, representing the congregation in the community and engaging youth and young adults.

Growing congregations typically have a clear identity and purpose and the leader plays a central leadership role in focusing the congregation on that purpose through preaching, teaching, administration and more informal activities. Whether that purpose is articulated in a vision statement (that is actually known by members) or simply acknowledged as the “way” of a congregation, growing congregations know what they are about and how they differ from other congregations. The leader is very important in helping a congregation find its purpose and in reinforcing that purpose and the identity out of which it flows.

The smallest correlation between leadership activities and a growing church was with the pastor involved in “planning and leading worship,” followed by “administration, supervision and committee meetings” and “providing pastoral care.”

Congregational Programs and Recruitment

As other studies have shown, the primary way people first connect with a congregation is through someone who is already involved. Where “a lot” of members are involved in recruitment, 63% of congregations are growing. By contrast, where very few if any members are involved in recruitment, hardly any of those congregations are experiencing substantial growth. Growing congregations are more likely to engage in a variety of recruitment-related activities, both formal and informal. Growing churches are good at greeting people, following up when newcomers visit and at incorporating newcomers into existing groups within the congregation.

Another specific action that a congregation can do to encourage growth is by sponsoring a program or event to attract non-members and 44% of congregations that held such events once a month or more grew substantially from 2005 to 2010. Congregations that never held special events were very unlikely to experience growth. The types of special events and programs offered by congregations can be quite varied, but what they have in common is the intent of attracting both members and non-members.  The programs that produced the strongest relationships with growth were: 1) young adult activities; 2) parenting or marriage enrichment activities; and 3) prayer or meditation groups.

Congregational Worship

In general, the more worship services a congregation holds, the more likely it is to have grown.  The character of worship as celebration rather than lament is important to encouraging the growth of a congregation. Whether a congregation has relatively few or more than a few children and youth, involving them in worship is also associated with growth.

The Context of Church Location and Age of Members

Congregations located in the downtown or central city area are more likely to experience growth than congregations in any other type of location. Newer suburbs are next most likely to be home to growing congregations, but only 40% of congregations in newer suburbs experienced substantial growth from 2005 to 2010, as compared to 72% from 2000 to 2005. Congregations are least likely to grow in small towns and rural areas.

More important today than rural, urban, or suburban location is the region in which a congregation is located. The South, from Maryland to Texas, is better for growth than all other regions. Not only is the South growing more in population than most other regions due to “sunbelt migration,” but also it is the most religious part of the nation—a place where religious observance remains more normative. In other regions of the nation growth is much more difficult.

Growth is highly related to the age structure of the congregation, but not all congregations are composed primarily of older adults. Those that have a healthy mix of ages tend to be growing, but most important to growth is the ability of congregations to attract younger adults and families with children. Congregations in which middle age or older adults (age 50 or older) comprise 30% or less of all active participants are most likely to grow.

Conflict in a Church

Congregations with no conflict or only minor conflict during the previous five years are least likely to decline and most likely to grow. What types of conflict are most likely to cause decline? The answer is conflict over the leader’s style of leadership followed by conflict over money. Conflict in these areas tends to be more disruptive than does conflict over worship, program priorities, the behavior of members or the actions of denominational bodies (even for denominations that are highly conflicted).

Click here for a copy of the entire study, FACTS on Growth: 2010.

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