Nine out of ten congregations say they want to add more members. That’s one of the important findings of a research group I’m part of that conducted a huge survey known as FACT – for Faith Communities Today 2010 survey. But more than learning that churches want to grow, we found a bunch of factors strongly related to growth. Here’s the analysis of more than 7,000 local houses of worship compiled by C. Kirk Hadaway, Church Officer for Congregational Research, The Episcopal Church, and one of the leaders of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership which sponsors the FACT series of research studies.
What Correlates With Growth?
Location is important. Congregations located in the downtown or central city neighborhoods of metropolitan areas were more likely to grow in recent years. Those in newer suburbs were also likely to grow. This is a significant change from a similar study completed in 2005 when the newer suburbs were more likely to be the location of growing congregations than central city neighborhoods. Congregations located in the South are also more likely to grow than those located in other parts of the country.
New congregations are more likely to grow than are those with a longer history. The majority of new congregations started since 1992 have had significant increases in the number of active participants. This growth advantage does not last forever. “After 15 to 20 years the window of opportunity closes.”
If a congregation has a significant percentage of ethnic minorities or is predominantly made up of an ethnic minority it is more likely to grow.
Youth is a key factor. Congregations in which people over 50 make up 30 percent or less of the active participants are most likely to have growth.
A clear sense of mission and purpose is “one of the strongest correlates of growth.” There is also a strong relationship between growth and the sense that the congregation is “spiritually vital and alive.”
A contemporary worship style also correlates with growth. The use of electric guitars, drums, projectors and an “innovative” approach to worship were combined in a scale that has a strong relationship with growing congregations. There is a similar correlation for congregations that report that their worship has “changed a lot” in recent years and those that have added a new worship service.
A number of specific activities and programs are included in this analysis. There is a strong correlation with growth among those congregations that report follow-up contact with newcomers in worship and conducting special events designed to be comfortable and interesting to non-members. This includes parenting classes and marriage enrichment events as well as other kinds of programs.
What the clergy leader in the congregation spends time on also correlates with growth. Evangelism and the recruitment of new members as well as developing and promoting a vision for the congregation are the key activities.
Considerable additional information is included in the 24-page report, FACTs on Growth: 2010. This is the fourth in a series of reports from the monumental, decade-long research enterprise in which the major religions in America worked together. How the findings relate to specific denominational families and faith traditions is explained in the report and at the FACT web site there are individual reports from a number of the faiths.