“And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts: 2:47)
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.
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
Today all congregations are invited to take the U.S. Congregational Life Survey to learn more about their worshipers and to identify congregational strengths.
Thoughtful Orthodox leaders interested and committed to growing their parishes in terms of membership may benefit by comparing the priorities, goals and objectives of their own parish with the general findings below. Orthodoxy is quite strong is some of these assets but woefully weak in other elements.
What Growing Churches Do
The research says congregations using the following strategies or approaches grow in numbers and ministry effectiveness:
Strong churches welcome new people
- Increase the number of worship visitors.
- Increase the visibility of the congregation in the community (e.g., Web site, paid newspaper and telephone book ads, good outdoor signage, participation in community events).
- Encourage members to invite others; equip members to invite effectively (e.g. Bring a Friend Sundays, special events).
- Identify and make personal and telephone follow-up contact with all visitors, especially first time worship visitors.
- Offer a group for new people.
Strong churches encourage participation
- Fast-track new people into meaningful ministry roles. Ask them what they feel passionate about. What do they see as their ministry?
- Identify what types of new people the congregation attracts (e.g., returnees, switchers). Ask new people what made the church attractive to them.
- Create additional small group experiences, such as prayer or study groups.
Strong churches offer meaningful worship experiences
- Evaluate current worship service(s) for vitality. Are service(s) connecting with all age groups and relevant local cultures (e.g., ethnic groups, family types)?
- Offer more worship service options (e.g., additional services, more variety in worship and music styles, different types of services).
Strong churches help people grow spiritually
- Focus on the long-term development of disciples (spirituality or faith, financial stewardship, and ministry).
Strong churches commit to a positive future
- Use multiple ministry methods and strategies all the time.
- Identify congregational strengths. How can the church optimize and leverage these strengths? How can the congregation be more effective in the areas that encourage numerical growth — such as, care for children, participation, and more new people?
- Evaluate current church organization and committee structure. Minimize the number of maintenance committees. Create ministry teams.
- Try new strategies. Evaluate efforts. Learn from failed efforts. Fix it and try again.
The research also says denominations and local judicatories using the following strategies help congregations grow in numbers and ministry effectiveness:
- Take action and set policies to help congregations undertake the above steps.
- Start new churches.
The research says many churches are not yet using the strategies or methods listed above. This lack of action occurs in many denominations that are declining in membership in recent years.
A major research question remains unanswered: How do we address the issue of motivation? How do we get pastors and lay leaders to take the actions that research demonstrates works? Accurate information must marry motivation and action. Otherwise, fewer and fewer children of God will gather in our churches.