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Factors Contribute to Growth in Churches

( [email protected] ) Mar 15, 2004 09:10 AM EST

According to a survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, www.fact.hartsem.edu, which interviewed leaders of 14,301 U.S. congregations of Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims and other faith groups, it was found that churches with specific definitions and goals for their members and high standards for personal morality and communal justice experience growth in membership.

Based on the survey, 51 percent said their church has grown from 1995 to 2003 but in reality, Christianity throughout the nation is on the decline, said Calvin Miller, professor of preaching and ministry studies at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

"It's a radical decline, and the more secular cities become, the harder it is to make churches grow," he said. "I believe the decline is a matter of attrition for most churches. It reflects a failure to be responsive to the people who we ought to be reaching. They may have gone to church with mom and dad as a child. But now they've grown up, and they just don't enjoy it and they drift away."

Growing churches, Miller said, begins with a survey of the target audience so that the church knows the people it wants to serve and knows what has kept these people from coming to the church.

"You have to take away the things that keep a church from growing," Miller said, "because an old-style administration, old-style music, a pastor who isn't relational and a sermon style that no one likes will not make a church grow. Things that make churches grow are kind of edgy."

However Miller also addressed the problem of large churches with long history of tradition as they focus too much in attracting large number of new Christians. Because they avoid to deliver the message of an afterlife as they try to be so relevant in today’s world and to sing traditional hymns, they become unsure of in what direction their church is growing and they begin to wonder, he said, “Who are we?”

"These churches major on the idea of relevance," Miller said. "They aren't worried about telling you how to die, but on telling you how to live while you are here. You lose a lot of transcendental values. There's a lot of how to' sermons -- how to forgive your brother and how to build a family."

In Atlanta, 35 of the congregations in the city's suburbs each have more than 5,000 members.

"The reason these churches thrive is because the suburbs are full of displaced people who have no roots in the community," Thomas E. Frank, director of Methodist studies and a professor of church administration at Emory University in Atlanta said. "For these people, the large church functions like a small town. It is a place of belonging that fits a wide range of needs. They offer recreation, social events, even credit unions."

New congregations grow more easily than long-standing traditional congregations, Frank said, because "they don't have to learn the traditional issues of a Christian faith."

New congregations don't have to sing older hymns or follow traditional liturgical styles if they don't want to. As a new church, they can start their own traditions -- which can be attractive to many newcomers.

However Frank said the key to growth is not simply changing one’s own tradition to attract more number of people. The key to growth, Frank said, is "not to adopt somebody else's culture, but to promote your own culture in a more effective way. I've heard traditional congregations sing songs from 200 years ago, but in a way that is very dynamic and exciting for today."

"Growth is a fruit, to use a biblical metaphor. It's an outgrowth," said.

"But fruit comes from trees that are deeply rooted. The fruit of growth in the church is drawn on things of tradition. The key here is not just growth, but also a faithfulness to a church's own identity and tradition."

Key Findings From Beyond the Ordinary' c. 2004 Religion News Service

Here are some key findings from "Beyond the Ordinary: 10 Strengths of U.S. Congregations"

What Size Congregation Earned High Scores for Key Strengths

1. Growing Spiritually: Small

2. Meaningful Worship: Small

3. Participating in the Congregation: Small

4. Having a Sense of Belonging: Small

5. Caring for Children and Youth: Mid-size

6. Focusing on the Community: Mid-size

7. Sharing Faith: Small

8. Welcoming New People: Large

9. Empowering Leadership: Small

10. Looking to the Future: Mid-size

What Denominational Family Earned High Scores for Key Strengths

1. Growing Spiritually: Conservative Protestant, Historically Black

2. Meaningful Worship: Conservative Protestant

3. Participating in the Congregation: Historically Black

4. Having a Sense of Belonging: Historically Black

5. Caring for Children and Youth: Conservative Protestant, Historically Black

6. Focusing on the Community: Mainline Protestant

7. Sharing Faith: Historically Black

8. Welcoming New People: Conservative Protestant

9. Empowering Leadership: Conservative Protestant

10. Looking to the Future: Historically Black

Source: U.S. Congregational Life Survey & Religion News Service