Multiplication Center

New Picture of “Religion” in America Shows Slight Decline

March 18, 2010

LN-logo_RGB-2010 At Leadership Network our main work is with churches that have focused vision and identity, a passion for making disciples of Jesus Christ, and a strong degree of willingness to try something new if “business as usual” results don’t match what Scripture calls for. These innovative churches tend to describe themselves as spiritually vital. They are also likely to be growing in size and are even reproducing themselves through church planting, multiple locations and the like.

A just released truly national profile of ALL faith groups in the United States shows a composite that is not nearly as encouraging. American-Congregations-FACT2008-cover-ROOZENThe opening paragraph summarizes everything with the word sobering. Then, comparing its 2008 to 2005 version, it uses the word “negative—including worship attendance growth, spiritual vitality and sense of mission and purpose,” according to project director David Roozen.

However, there is also much good news in the 38 page report’s 97 different colorful and informative charts plus commentary. They show developments in everything from worship to clergy time usage. The insightful report is named American Congregations 2008 (free download) because the huge 2,527-congregation survey was conducted in 2008, tallied and analyzed in 2009, and now reported in early 2010.

Whatever someone’s particular tradition, a lot can be learned from the report’s “global” findings about religion in America. Some findings seem rather obvious, such as a relationship between visitor follow-up and growth in attendance. The drill down on that finding explores what TYPES of contact have the greatest impact on attendance growth. The learning is that using a variety of methods produced the greatest likelihood of growth, again something you might have guessed. Related but not surprising: a member’s involvement in recruiting new people is arguably the most effective aspect.

But many findings were not intuitive or common sense, at least to me! For example:

• The better the financial health of a congregation, the better its spiritual vitality. The relationship between fiscal health and attendance growth is very similar to that for spiritual vitality. The worse the financial health of a congregation, the greater the chance for conflict.

• A congregation’s age structure is very significant. The more senior adults the lower a congregation’s spiritual vitality, the poorer financial health, the less growth, the less openness to change and the more conflict.

• When churches add another worship service, they sometimes wonder whether to make the news service similar or different. Insight from this study: “Beyond the positive effect of multiple services for participation, there is virtually no difference [in attendance growth rate] between congregations whose multiple services are basically the same and those that are very different. The same is true for spiritual vitality.”

• One of the most interesting findings from the research on Billy Graham’s evangelism crusades is that one of the crusades’ strongest measurable impacts was on the legions of local volunteers that assisted at each campaign and went through a rigorous training program. . . . Likewise congregations with a lot of member involvement in recruitment are much more likely than other congregations to have a high corporate sense of spiritual vitality (although this is a bit of chicken and egg issue in that it also is probably true that members in spiritually vital congregations are more likely to involve themselves in recruitment).

• Less than half of congregations said that lay leaders were publically recognized and thanked on a regular basis and less than a quarter said they provided regular training sessions for new leaders, which probably partially explains why many congregations have a hard time finding enough leaders. But more importantly, “congregations that do both are more than twice as likely to be spiritually vital than those that do neither.”

• Leaders who had a seminary education scored lower, overall, on a wide range of vital signs including growth, clarity of purpose, spiritual vitality, financial health, and openly dealing with conflict.

• Serious conflict was present in 25% of all congregations.

arrow-right What did I find most intriguing? The comments about how people move from spectator to participant. In particular:

Congregations with high spiritual vitally are also more intentional in their attention to new persons. More specifically “the larger a congregation, the more intentional it must be about providing programmatic pathways into congregational life.” And the good news: Larger congregations, in general, ARE more attentive to doing so, such as helping people get involved in a small group. (On the downside, the largest congregations in the study were clearly the weakest in contacting lapsed attenders.) 

You can spend 10 minutes or several hours in the report. Either way, if you enjoy reading about the general direction of faith in America, and are perhaps curious how it compares to what your church is (or isn’t) doing, I hope you’ll take a look at American Congregations 2008.


Bird-Warren-jacket-adjusted Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.

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