Places of Promise: How location matters to congregations

“Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.”

Genesis 28:16

Location, location, location is the maxim of many real estate professionals when it comes to putting a value on a house.

But when it comes to congregations, perhaps a better mantra would be ministry, ministry, ministry.

And replacing negative expectations with an openness to meet the spiritual needs of the community wherever the congregation is located.

“Many beliefs about the power of location are simply myths,” researchers Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce state in their book, “Places of Promise: Finding Strength in Your Congregation’s Location.” “Congregations are growing and can grow in all locations.”

In the high-water mark for some congregations in the 1950s and 1960s, there was the idea that if you “plop a church down in the right location, it will magically grow,” notes Woolever. Today, as many churches are losing members in a more secular culture, there is the temptation to blame the church’s location for the losses.

Yet what matters is not so much the location, Woolever says, “but what you are trying to do in that place.”

In analyzing data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, Woolever and Bruce found the one location factor related to numerical growth was if the congregation had spent more years at its current location. Whether a congregation was in the South or the West, a red or blue state, in a growing suburban community or a high-mobility urban community, was not related to growth.

Consider also these findings:

  • Thirty-five percent of numerically declining congregations were located in growing-population areas.
  • Twenty-four percent of “numerically plateaued” congregations were located in growing-population areas.
  • Thirty-eight percent of numerically growing congregations were located in growing-population areas.

Many times, what congregations claim about ways their location is holding them back “is completely irrelevant,” says Woolever, the former director of the US CLS.

This does not mean some areas are not more difficult than others to have numerically growing or vital congregations. For example, congregations in rural communities with declining aging populations will find it tougher to attract new members.

Yet each location also offers unique strengths, Woolever and Bruce found. Rural communities, for example, do particularly well in areas such as providing meaningful worship, involving many worshipers, caring for children and youth and building a strong sense of belonging among members, all factors associated with growth. Congregations in economically distressed urban communities excel at sharing their faith with others.

Woolever and Bruce encourage congregations to get rid of the “negative scripts” that see their location as determining or limiting what they are able to accomplish in their community.

Instead, they encourage congregations to view their location as a God-given gift that suggests their church is “in this place at this time for a reason—God’s reason.”

When a congregation is viewed as a place of promise, religious communities can look to the future with a sense of hope that “allows for change and an openness to God’s work in the world,” the researchers state.

In practical terms, that could mean being open to new styles of worship or new programs that best serve the spiritual needs of people in the surrounding neighborhood, including the vital demographic of young adults too often missing from the pews.

The key to making congregations stronger? Identify the congregation’s strengths and prayerfully discern “what God is calling the congregation to be and do in this place,” state Woolever and Bruce.

“What are the unmet needs in this community, and what can our congregation do to meet those needs?” is a question that should be asked, Woolever says. “If you do that, your congregation’s location is not a liability, it’s a place of ministry.”