“Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)
The U.S. Congregational Life Survey is a massive, ongoing effort to research the attitudes, opinions and perceptions of worshipers (500,000 of them!) from 5,000 congregations (mostly Protestant but also Roman Catholic). The first wave of surveys were conducted in 2001 and since then, additional surveys occurred in 2008 and 2009. There is a slight emphasis on the Presbyterian church but the data remain useful.
The purposes of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey are:
- to provide congregations with resources that will help them better understand themselves, identify their strengths, and stimulate their efforts to create a positive future for themselves.
- to develop resources that help congregations assess their ministries and relate more effectively with their communities
- to provide a national and international congregational data base that will enable congregations to look at their ministries in relationship to denominational, national, and international benchmarks
- to provide denominational leaders, congregational consultants, and congregational planners with information and resources to assist congregations
- to assess change over time
The U.S. Congregational Life Survey provided a unique look at what works in the areas of evangelization and church growth. Responses from samples of fast-growing churches helped us debunk common myths.
1. Only congregations in growing areas are adding members
- Fact: Three strengths are positive predictors of growth — Caring for Children and Youth, Welcoming New People, and Participating in the Congregation.
- Fact: Other factors don’t predict growth — denomination or faith group, congregational size, income levels of worshipers, average age of worshipers, and population growth around the church.
2. Only new or recently established congregations are growing
- Fact: Less than half of fast-growing Presbyterian churches were established after 1960. Most are older.
3. Only large churches grow
- Fact: 39% of fast-growing Presbyterian churches have fewer than 200 in worship. Small congregations grow, too!
4. Most people have been attending their congregation for years and years
- Fact: One-third of worshipers are new in the last five years; in fast-growing churches one-half are new.
5. Most new people are new to the faith
- Fact: Most new people attending their congregation for five years or less have changed congregations within the same denomination (transfers: 57%). Only 7% are first-timers who are new to the faith. A few (18%) are returnees who used to attend worship but recently have not been involved, and 18% are switchers who changed denominations.
6. Denomination is irrelevant to church seekers
- Fact: Most new people (73%) say denomination is important in their search.
- Fact: Denomination is less important to mainline Protestants (59%) and those under the age of 25 (48%).
7. New people usually learn about the congregation from advertising
- Fact: Many new people (47%) visit for the first time because someone invited them; only 6% came for the first time due to advertising.
- Fact: Most new people visit between 1 and 3 congregations before choosing their new home.
- Fact: Advertising helps raise awareness of the congregation and can make current members feel proud of their congregation.
8. New people usually come back after the first time because of the coffee hour
- Fact: People return because of the quality of the sermon (36%), the friendliness of the people (32%), and the overall worship experience (30%).
- Fact: Too many new people (38%) report no follow-up from the congregation after their first visit. In Catholic parishes, 53% of new people report no follow-up.
9. Growing congregations rely exclusively on church signs and big advertising campaigns
- Fact: Growing congregations use multiple methods to attract new people.
- Fact: Growing congregations are more likely to hold events to meet new people or to add members, advertise in the newspaper or telephone book, use email, have a church Web site, and send materials to or telephone first-time visitors.
10. All congregations do the same things to integrate new worshipers
- Fact: Growing congregations use multiple methods to integrate new worshipers.
- Fact: Growing congregations are more likely to have a specific group for newcomers and to invite such people to take part in small groups or service opportunities.
11. New member integration methods are successful
- Fact: New people are less involved in their congregations than those who have been there for longer.
12. Worship services in growing churches offer only contemporary music
- Fact: Almost all worship services in growing Presbyterian churches (89%) include traditional hymns.
- Fact: Services in growing congregations are more likely to include contemporary music and laughter