New Findings about American Congregations

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Building on previous reports from 2000 and 2005, the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership based at Hartford Seminary has released a new research report on congregational life in the United States. Based on a 2008 national survey of churches and other religious communities, the report covers worship, conflict, leadership, vitality, attendance, finances, and other challenges. The findings are based on responses from more than 2,500 congregations that come from four traditions named by the researchers as: Oldline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic & Orthodox, and World Religions. Similarities and differences among the groupings are noted.

Congregations that have a clear identify and purpose tend to grow in attendance and spiritual vitality. This is true of churches that see themselves as more conservative than other churches and those that see themselves as more liberal than other churches.

According to the report’s author, noted researcher David A. Roozen, the trends in congregations since the turn of the century have been “sobering.” The vital signs are negative — including worship attendance growth, spiritual vitality, and sense of mission and purpose. The one exception, he notes, is the presence of serious conflict, which remains unchanged at about 25 percent of congregations. The study also identified some factors associated with growth in spiritual vitality and attendance:

    • Changing a congregation’s style of worship or adding a new service tends to improve attendance, and there is a clear affinity found between contemporary worship and higher attendance. However, the quality of the worship appears to be more important than the style.
    • Congregations that have a clear identify and purpose tend to grow in attendance and spiritual vitality. This is true of churches that see themselves as more conservative than other churches and those that see themselves as more liberal than other churches.
    • There is rising interest in youth ministry. While not strongly associated with attendance growth, a strong relationship was found between youth ministry programs and increasing spiritual vitality of the congregation.
    • While no one method of contacting guests seems to work better than others, the number of different methods a congregation uses to connect with newcomers is highly associated with attendance growth.
    • Member involvement in reaching new members is tied strongly to growth in attendance and spiritual vitality. This connection is more important with Oldline Protestant churches than any others.
    • Contacting members who stop attending makes a positive difference in churches that average 300 or more in worship. However, large churches are the least likely to make such contacts.
    • Creating strong interpersonal bonds and purposefulness are two factors that decrease the likelihood of conflict.
  • There is a strong positive correlation between spiritual vitality and financial health. Increasing financial health leads to greater giving to mission.

A free download of the report can be found athttps://faithcommunitiestoday.org/research-based-products-congregational-leadership.

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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, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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