The Church of England set out to learn from the 18 percent of their churches that grew in the decade up to 2010. A study conducted between 2011 and 2013 sought to investigate the factors influencing church growth in the Church of England. While there is “no single recipe” for growth, they concluded there are some ingredients closely associated with growing churches. In many ways, these factors mirror findings in the United States from the Faith Communities Today research and that of others.
There were some factors the researchers found that had no significant association with growth or decline. These included the theological orientation, gender, ethnicity, or marital status of the clergy. They also included the style of worship so long as the worship was considered and agreed upon.
Those studying the Church of England found a strong correlation between growth and qualities of leaders when these qualities are combined with an intention to grow. Leadership qualities that stood out included the abilities to motivate, envision, and innovate. Such qualities, according to the study, lead to growth when found in a leader who makes a priority of numerical growth.
Mission and purpose
Churches with a clear mission and purpose were far more likely to grow. Two-thirds of such churches grew compared to one-quarter of churches without such clarity regarding purpose.
Willingness to reflect and adapt
Self-reflection was a prime characteristic of growing churches, whereas “doing things by default” was more common among declining churches. Worship is a good example. No particular style of worship led to growth, but how the worship style was chosen was critical. Growing churches openly considered their options so that worship became “chosen rather than inherited.” Growing churches were willing to experiment and fail until they found the right match between tradition and culture. “Vitality comes with reflection and choice” is how one person put it.
The quality and participation of lay leadership was found to be critical alongside clergy leadership. Active involvement of lay members throughout the congregation’s ministry was a hallmark of growing churches. They also found that rotating leadership roles was important, especially if younger members and new members are included in leadership and service.
Focus on growth
Three avenues of growth tended to be found among the vital congregations. First, the orientation of the congregation was outward toward engagement with the community and with those not involved in church. Second, a welcoming and carefully planned engagement with new people in the church focused on establishing ongoing relationships. Third, two-thirds of the growing churches offered programs to help existing church members grow deeper in their discipleship.
What about declining churches?
While 18 percent of churches were growing in the decade under review, 27 percent were declining, with the remaining 55 percent remaining rather stable. The number one factor associated with decline was the inability of churches to retain younger generations. Growth was found where there is a high ratio of children to adults. A church with no children or youth is very likely to decline. Churches with young people are twice as likely to be growing
What we will never know
It should be added that there were some factors the researchers found that had no significant association with growth or decline. These included the theological orientation, gender, ethnicity, or marital status of the clergy. They also included the style of worship so long as the worship was considered and agreed upon.
As with all such findings, we look for clues for our congregations in order to take our own next faithful step. But we always keep such data in perspective. A section of the report titled “Church Growth: What We Will Never Know” cites the words of the Reverend Canon John Holmes: “With all these hypotheses there needs to be a proper humility and caution. The ways of God are not always easy to fathom or chart, least of all predict. Any wise student of church growth should always acknowledge the mystery of God’s loving action in the world and admit that there are times when we really don’t know why this cathedral or church has grown in this way at this time. But then God is God and we are not.”
The full report of “From Anecdote to Evidence: Findings from the Church Growth Research Programme 2011-2013” is available at www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk.
- If Churches Can Change, They Can Grow by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.