What are the major strengths of congregations?

We’ve looked at congregational strength and identified building blocks of vitality in four areas:

  • Spiritual Connections
  • Inside Connections
  • Outside Connections
  • Identity Connections

Within each area, we’ve identified two key strengths:

Spiritual Connections

Spiritual Connections are made through worshipers’ private devotions and their participation in congregational activities such as worship. Congregations focus on Spiritual Connections by cultivating faith and responding to the spiritual needs of their worshipers.

Strength #1. Private Devotional Activities. The first strength in this area involves worshipers’ private devotional activities. We found that the majority of worshipers (67%) spend at least a few times a week in private devotional activities things like reading the Bible or other devotional materials, praying, or meditating. In fact, 48% do so every day! The remaining 33% of worshipers do so less often — once a week, occasionally, or never.

Time in private devotions

How often do you spend time in private devotional activities?

chart - time in private devotions

You might ask: What difference does it make? Well, imagine two congregations: In one congregation, 80% of people spend time every day in private devotional activities. In the other congregation, only 1 in 10 (10%) people spend time in private devotional activities that often. What impact would this have on the lives of the people in these two congregations and what impact would it have on the life of each congregation? How might a deepening spiritual life serve as a well the congregation could draw upon to discern its calling?

Strength #2. Growth in Faith. The second strength in the area of Spiritual Connections is the finding that half of all worshipers (49%) say they have experienced much growth in their faith in the last year. Another 43% have experienced some spiritual growth. This is great news!!

And what has fostered their growth in faith? Perhaps listening to talk radio, watching television, or spending time at the gym? No. The number one reason worshipers give for their growth in faith is their participation in the congregation. Just imagine this headline: Most worshipers have grown in their faith in the last year by worshiping with others and taking part together in congregational activities! This is an amazing finding in a world of private, individualized religion and search for meaning.

Growing in faith

Over the past year how much have you grown in your faith?

chart - growing in faith

 

Inside Connections

Inside Connections focus on the ways worshipers connect with others in the congregation through group activities, serving in leadership roles, and financial support.

Strength #1. New People. The first strength in the area of Inside Connections is the finding that one-third of worshipers are new people who’ve been attending their current congregation for five years or less! In fact, 18% are new within the last two years.

Profile of new people

How long have you been going to worship services/other activities here?

Chart showing profile of new people

This means the turnover rate in the average congregation is fairly high. With the inflow of new people comes the potential of new ideas and new energy. How can congregations readily involve new people as partners in the congregation’s ministry? How can they make them feel welcome?

Strength #2. Strong Sense of Belonging. The second strength in the area of Inside Connections is the fact that eight in ten worshipers feel a strong sense of belonging to the place where they worship. And, more say that sense of belonging is growing than say it is steady or not as strong as it used to be.

Belonging here

Do you have a strong sense of belonging to this congregation?

chart - belonging here

 

Outside Connections

Outside Connections include the ways that the congregation and its worshipers connect with the community and with non-members, including service to the community, caring for neighbors, inviting other to attend, and welcoming newcomers.

Strength #1. Involvement in Community Service. We asked worshipers if they were involved in any community service, social service, or advocacy groups. Almost half (45%) said “yes.” Some said they were involved in these kinds of service activities through the congregation (18%), but an even larger number (34%) said they were involved in these kinds of groups outside the congregation.

Serving the community

Are you involved in community service, social service or advocacy groups?

chart - serving the community

We’ve often missed this latter type of involvement — community service activities that worshipers pursue other than through the congregation. Congregations are often unaware of the community service work their worshipers do as individuals or families, or through other organizations. Likewise, community groups and other organizations that benefit from the services of these individuals may never be aware that they serve because of their religious beliefs or their ties to a particular faith tradition. So, one of the clear strengths of congregations in the area of Outside Connections is the way they enable their worshipers to serve the community. Are there ways for the congregation to be even more proactive in helping their participants to deepen or extend their community service? Or to recognize and support participants current ministry in these areas?

Strength #2. Good Neighbors and Good Citizens. A second strength in the area of Outside Connections is that worshipers are “good neighbors” and “good citizens.” In the 12 months before the survey:

  • two-thirds (73%) donated money to a charitable organization (other than their congregation)
  • half (50%) prepared or gave food to someone outside their family or congregation
  • more than one in four (28%) loaned money to someone outside their family
  • more than one in five (23%) helped someone outside their family find a job
  • more than one in five (22%) cared for someone outside their family who was very sick
  • a few (6%) went on a mission or service trip

Worshipers are also “good citizens”:

  • they are more likely to vote than the average American (82% of worshipers voted in the last presidential election, but just 62% of the U.S. population did)
  • in the last year, 20% worked with others to try to solve a community problem
  • 18% contacted an elected official about a public issue
  • almost two in ten (16%) contributed money to a political party or candidate

Worshipers possess specific strengths in their connections to the community.

Good neighbors, good citizens

In the past 12 months have you done the following?

chart - good neighbors, good citizens

 

Identity Connections

Identity Connections deal with who worshipers are do they look like other Americans? It also deals with congregational identity and worshipers’ vision for the future.

Strength #1. Highly Educated. The average worshiper is well educated. The U.S. Census reports about 27% of the population has a college degree or higher education. Among worshipers, the figure is 47%. Fully 94% overall have completed high school. This is an Identity Strength of worshipers.

Highly educated

What is the highest education level you have completed?

chart - highly educated

This strength also appears to be a “universal.” In each of the four countries (Australia, New Zealand, England, and the U.S.) that participated in the project, the educational level of worshipers exceeded the educational attainment in the general population. Media portrayals and popular opinion about religion as a past-time of the ignorant or of people who are challenged by critical thinking is simply false advertising.

Strength #2. Diversity of Families. Another strength in the area of Identity Connections that we can highlight is the diversity of “family” types found in today’s congregations. The image of families like Ward and June, Wally and Beaver filling the pews is a false image. Large percentages of worshipers are not currently living in a traditional 2-parent household: 14% have never been married; 17% are divorced, widowed or separated; and 12% are in second marriages after divorce or the death of a spouse. Furthermore, most (56%) do not have children living at home. Married couples with children are the “minority profile” in congregations. We see this as a strength because it mirrors the profile of the U.S. population. Married couples with children are also now a minority percentage of households in America.

Diversity of family types

chart - diversity of family types

Cultural stereotypes persist of religious involvement as something for young, married couples with kids. Others see church-going as the favorite past-time of older widows. But the truth is that a wide variety of individuals and families attend worship services across America.

How can congregations more fully embrace worshipers in all life stages, all generations, and all family configurations? How can we ensure that all are welcomed and served in our congregations?

Conclusions

Remember that all congregations are unique. Your congregation might not be able to claim all of these national strengths as your own. But, each congregation has strengths that make it unique and that can be celebrated. Find your strengths!

Challenges

Not all of the results of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey pointed to strengths. There are also some challenges that congregations face.