Changing Congregational Trends

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Every five years Faith Communities Today provides a marvelous service to all churches through their very thorough survey of religious congregations across the United States. Sociologist David A. Roozen and his colleagues have developed ways to monitor the pulse of congregational life.

The 2015 report captures both continuity and change among U.S. congregations. Perhaps the biggest change since 2010 was the dramatic decline in multi-religious activity by churches reported in Sunday is Not a Presidential Primary. Here are some of the other findings.

Roozen and his colleagues have developed ways to monitor the pulse of congregational life.

Growth and change go together

“In a rapidly changing world,” the report says, “thriving congregations are nearly ten times more likely to have changed themselves than are struggling congregations.” So churches that grow have to change, but there is no assurance in the uncertain religious landscape of today that a particular change will be effective. This may be one reason the “willingness to change to meet new challenges” has dropped from 74 percent to just under 62 percent in the past ten years.

Change and conflict go together

For many years these surveys have shown two recurring themes. First, churches willing to change, especially in worship, are more likely to grow. Second, when there has been a major conflict in recent years, the church is not likely to grow. This report concludes that there is a subtle interplay between change and conflict that cannot be avoided but must be understood and engaged. Here is what happens. Change is required for growth. Change leads to conflict. Conflict, if not kept to manageable levels, leads to decline. There is no escaping that change creates tension and a sense of loss by some people. Those pursuing change do well to recognize this reality and do those things necessary to lessen the degree of conflict change produces. Churches must get over their aversion to any conflict while taking great care to pace and interpret change sensitively.

Growth and spiritual vitality go together

It turns out that the debate about whether churches should focus on reaching more people or growing spiritual vitality among current members misses the point about how growth and spiritual vitality relate to each other. A growing church is more likely to be more spiritually vital, and a declining church is more likely to be less spiritually vital. Fewer than 20 percent of declining churches reported that they had high spiritual vitality while almost 36 percent of growing churches reported high spiritual vitality. The likelihood is that those things churches do to reach new people also enrich current members, and those things churches do to deepen the spiritual vitality of current members make new members more likely.

Worship changes often lead to growth

“Whatever a congregation’s sense of innovation in worship,” says the report, “one thing has remained constant over our 15 years of surveys — namely the strong relationship that changing worship has to both growth and spiritual vitality.” It appears that in the last five years fewer churches are making such changes. When asked if a congregation had changed the style of any of its worship services in the past five years or added a new service with a different style, those reporting no change or only a minor change jumped from 68 percent to 78 percent from 2010 to 2015, and those adding a new service of a different style dropped to just over 4 percent.

Young adults are increasingly scarce in churches

While over 20 percent of the U.S. population is 18-34 years old, the report finds that only 10 percent of congregations reach that level of participation by young adults. While this has historically been a group less represented in church, today’s young adults are less religiously affiliated or even interested than in past times. No one doubts the challenge facing churches seeking to reach younger generations. What may be surprising is that only one in ten congregations make reaching young adults their priority but, for those that do, they are five times more likely to have a thriving young adult ministry than churches for which it is not a priority.

Laity reach other laity

While only 14 percent of congregations say their laity are quite or very involved in reaching new people, the more laity are involved in recruitment, the more likely growth is and, as the report puts it, “the effect is dramatic.” Of the churches that grew two percent or more in the past five years, fully 90 percent of them said that laity have “a lot of involvement” in reaching new people.

Distinguish yourself in the community

A consistent finding from the beginning of this survey is that churches that are seen as different in some way from other churches are more likely to grow. Do your members tend to think your church is about like other churches in your community? If the answer is positive, there’s a good chance your church is not growing. Churches can see themselves as distinctive without arrogance or superiority. They are not saying they are necessarily better or that all churches should be like them. Rather, such churches believe God has called them to a distinctive ministry for their time and place.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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