HARTFORD, Conn. (ABP) — A congregation’s health depends less on theology than methodology, according to a national study by Hartford Seminary’s Institute for Religion Research.
Faith Communities Today 2008 paints an overall sobering picture of congregational life in America. Congregations in general are losing ground in attendance, financial health and overall vitality. At the same time, many are bucking the trend, reporting spiritual vitality and a sense of mission and purpose despite challenges like finances and conflict.
“Most discussions of congregational identity focus on (ideological) content,” lead researcher David Roozen wrote in the report. “But what most organizational theorists say is that strength of identity or distinctiveness of identity is equally, if not more, important.”
About one-third of church members — 35 percent — surveyed strongly agreed with a statement describing their congregation as spiritually vital and alive.
Those churches are more likely to say they have a clear sense of mission and purpose that sets them apart from other congregations. They also are more likely to have grown in the last five years and less likely to face financial problems.
The researchers identified things that vital congregations do particularly well.
People who attend vital churches are more likely to invite a new person to a Sunday school class than people who attend other churches.
Vital churches tend to be better at inviting new people to take part in worship leadership by reading, singing or taking up an offering.
They also get new visitors or members involved in social ministry more quickly.
Other earmarks of vital churches include providing training for volunteers and regularly recognizing them for their service.
Clergy of vital churches promote a clear vision for the congregation, engage in evangelism and involve themselves in the training of lay leaders. Other clergy leadership areas like administration and representing the congregation in the community, on the other hand, showed “no significant relationship” to a church’s spiritual vitality.
Overall, fewer than half — 48 percent — of congregations in the study reported more than a 2 percent growth in worship attendance over the last five years. That is 10 points below the 58 percent that reported growth in 2005.
Fewer than one in five — 19 percent — described their church’s financial health as “excellent,” down from 24 percent in 2005 and 31 percent in 2000.
Three churches in four — 74 percent — reported having conflict during the past five years over key issues like money, worship, leadership or program priorities.
Conflict in many cases saps vitality, Roozen observed, but if managed well, it can lead to positive change.
Churches that recently adopted a more contemporary worship style were more likely to have increased attendance by 2 percent or more between 2003 and 2008 than congregations that have always had traditional worship — 64 percent versus 44 percent.
About half — 53 percent — of congregations that have a contemporary service but haven’t changed it in the last five years report growth of 2 percent or more in worship attendance in that time frame.
Changes in worship style do not automatically boost attendance, however. Churches that have adopted some changes but still consider their worship service traditional are least likely to grow, with 41 percent reaching the 2-percent-over-five-years benchmark in increased attendance.
The study is one in a series of national surveys examining 39 American denominations and faith groups.
The preview says demographics pose a particular challenge for some faith groups — primarily mainline Protestant denominations.
Churches with large percentages of participants who are 65 or older are less likely to grow or view themselves as spiritually alive. They also are more resistant to change and experience more conflict.
Bob Allen is senior news writer for Associated Baptist Press.