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Are there common characteristics of thriving Christian congregations?

As I've continued researching the causes of Christianity's decline in the United States generally, and the shrinking large denominations more specifically, I've focused heavily on demographic changes, especially changes in family formation patterns. This is because I think this explains many of the current trends, but also because this has been the focus of so much of my research (as the saying goes, "when your only tool is a hammer ...").

That said, even if it hasn't been the focus of my work, I couldn't help but encounter other research that deals with other elements of congregational and denominational decline and growth. None of this fits neatly in my current project, but there is no reason not to post some of it here, in case readers are interested.

Churches faced with serious decline typically engage in much (justified) hand-wringing and speculation on what can be done to stop the bleeding. All sorts of ideas are thrown about: perhaps the church needs to stake out a more conservative or liberal stance on key points of contention in the culture war, or perhaps stay out of politics all together; maybe they need to drop the stodgy old liturgy and embrace contemporary music; maybe they need to create a top-notch day-care center, using an “if you build it, they will come” type of logic; maybe the pastor needs to start wearing skinny jeans.

Again, and unfortunately for congregations in this situation, there is not a panacea that inevitably turns churches around. However, there is now enough data and research available to draw some broad conclusions about what methods are typically effective, and what is ineffectual or worse.

Churches, understandably, have shown a particular interest in bringing young people through their doors. Robert Wuthnow has conducted useful research on the characteristics of youthful congregations. As one would expect, those denominations that have a higher percentage of young people also have experienced less dramatic overall losses in recent decades – Evangelical denominations have the highest percentage of congregations with a large number of young people, and mainline Protestant denominations have the lowest.[i]

Wuthnow also showed that congregations that tend to have a larger share of young people are those that were founded in the recent past – thirty percent of congregations with a large contingent of young people were founded no earlier than 1970. Congregations in which a large percentage of the membership is young are also, on average, larger – a greater percentage of these congregations have memberships of one thousand people or more. Unsurprisingly, congregations with many young adults were also the congregations with many children, and a have large share of children attending Sunday school on a weekly basis.

Also unsurprisingly, you tend to find young congregations in communities where young people actually live.[ii] The trend among young people to move to urban areas is one of the more interesting and important ongoing demographic phenomena occurring in the United States today. To a great extent, many churches in rural areas cannot be blamed for their dearth of young members; there simply are not that many young people around. Like demographic transition, there are many possible causes for the declining population in much of rural America. One distressing trend for rural America is the ongoing exodus of young people who leave home to pursue educational or employment opportunities – a trend also called the “rural brain drain.”[iii]

The very people rural communities will need to create thriving economies in the long-run are leaving and not returning. This trend tends to reinforce itself, as a flight of talent from rural America further weakens economic prospects among those young people who might otherwise have stayed but must now move in search of work. All of this is leading to a situation where rural America is aging more rapidly than other kinds of communities in the U.S. This is also in part due to the fact that older people, while less mobile than younger Americans, do often move, and they are more likely to move to rural communities.[iv]

For years, many congregations have debated whether developing alternative worship styles will attract more young people; many people assume that youth prefer more entertaining, contemporary music and a less formal liturgy. However, Wuthnow also demonstrated that this stereotype is not validated by survey data. In fact, contemporary worship music was considerably more popular among people in their forties than people in their twenties. Of all age cohorts, people under the age of thirty were the least likely to say they want their congregation adopt contemporary music.[v]

Related to questions regarding the style of worship, such as music, is the question of size. A key question many church leaders are asking themselves is whether the so-called mega church model represents the future of Christianity in America, and churches with a more traditional liturgy and congregation size are doomed to die off. Although there was some evidence that larger congregations are more appealing to young people, Wuthnow made it clear that the mega church model was not the only model that can attract young adults, and in fact only a small minority of young adults are members of congregations with more than 2,000 people.[vi] It is also important to note that largeness per se is often not what makes many congregations attractive.

Large congregations are more likely to offer day care services, for example. However, smaller churches have benefits of their own, such as a greater sense of connectedness and community that is more difficult to foster in a large congregation. In the largest congregations, one can easily feel anonymous in a crowd of thousands. The degree to which a person is socially embedded within their congregation is a strong predictor of their commitment to that congregation, and social embeddedness is more difficult to achieve in a very large congregation.[vii]

The challenges associated with large congregations can be partially mitigated by institutionalizing small group activities – such as Sunday school, prayer groups, Bible study, or other activities. These small groups can provide opportunities to develop relationships and create a sense of belonging within the congregation and ameliorate the sense of anonymity that is often associated with large crowds. There is evidence indicating that small groups can facilitate greater worship attendance and commitment to a congregation.[viii]

However, this same research indicated that the effectiveness of small groups was not dependent on the overall size of the congregation. That is, small groups were equally effective at fostering commitment among members of smaller congregations.

A characteristic of mega churches, besides their impressive size, is the degree to which they are “market oriented.” That is, they treat their church as a consumer good. The market-oriented church model has long been promoted by figures such as George Barna and Rick Warren who advocate treating potential new members the same way that businesses treat potential customers – that is, churches should market themselves aggressively, and conform their services to the preferences of the public.

In a 2007 study, Darin White and Clovis Simas measured the degree to which various churches exhibited a market-orientated culture, and their long-term performance.[ix] The results of this study did not indicate that embracing a market orientation was a panacea for churches. They used a large number of measures to determine the degree to which a church exhibited a market orientation – all based on surveys – and then used these measures to create a single scale. The measures included questions indicating the degree to which members of the congregation were treated like customers, the degree to which other churches were treated as competitors, and the degree to which churches sought to conform to their congregations’ wishes. They also used multiple indicators of church performance, such as the number of new members, the number of worship attendees, the number of Sunday school attendees, volunteering rates, and money donated. The study concluded that market-oriented churches are more effective at bringing in new visitors. However, market-oriented churches were not more effective when it comes to transitioning visitors into members. That is, a market orientation may bring people through the doors, but it does not appear to turn them into financially-committed church members.

Riza Casidy investigated the impact of church “branding” on how members perceive the benefits of church participation.[x] This study relied on the concept of “perceived brand orientation” – measured by a subjective evaluation of a church’s uniqueness, reputation, and orchestration. These measures were found to be related to the perceived benefits associated with belonging to a church and regularly taking part in church activities. This is important because these perceived benefits can increase the probability that a person will remain involved with their congregation. The study concluded that perceived brand orientation did have a significant impact on perceived benefits, leading the author to argue that things like a church’s standing in the overall community is an important factor determining the perceived benefits of membership, and churches should make a strong effort to gain positive publicity.

Grayson Tucker argued that successful churches must have a strong sense of identity and mission.[xi] He argued that congregational morale is no less important than total membership numbers, and it is ultimately this sense of morale that will boost a congregation’s health. Providing a clear sense of the church’s mission, while remaining open to changes in that mission, is a determinant of a member attachment and involvement in the church. This research indicates that stronger congregations have a clear, biblically inspired mission that extends beyond the four walls of the church. They also seem to have a strong connection to their own history; according to Tucker, “it is crucial to take this history into account and to uncover the connections between the congregation’s past and its new future.”[xii]

There is obviously much more research on this question than I covered here. If any readers have suggestions on what else would be useful to read, I welcome them.

[i] Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007)

[ii] Ibid, 221

[iii] Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009)

[iv] David L. Brown and Nina Glasgow, Rural Retirement Migration, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2008)

[v] Wuthnow, 224

[vi] Ibid, 222

[vii] Jennifer M. McClure, “The Cost of Being Lost in the Crowd: How Congregational Size and Social Networks Shape Attenders’ Involvement in Community Organizations," Review of Religious Research, (2014), 1-18

[viii] Kevin D. Dougherty and Andrew L. Whitehead, “A Place to Belong: Small Group Involvement in Religious Congregations.” Sociology of Religion. 72(2011): 91-111.

[ix] Darin W. White and Clovis F. Simas, “An Empirical Investigation of the Link between Market Orientation and Church Performance.” International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing. 13(2007): 153-165.

[x] Riza Casidy, “How Great Thy Brand: The Impact of Church Branding on Perceived Benefits.” International Journal of Nonprofit and Volunteer Sector Marketing. 18(2013): 231-239

[xi] Grayson L. Tucker, “Enhancing Church Vitality Through Congregational Identity Change,” in The Mainstream Protestant “Decline”: The Presbyterian Pattern, eds. Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 66-85

[xii] Ibid, 79

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