Worshipers’ Experiences in Fast Growing PC(USA) Congregations

Most mainline Protestant denominations have been losing members (including the ELCA, the Episcopal Church, and the PC(USA)).  Yet some mainline Protestant congregations are still growing in the face of this widespread membership decline.  In 2011, worshipers in more than 100 fast growing PC(USA) churches participated in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.  They reported on their spiritual growth, congregational involvement, experiences in worship, and perceptions of church leadership.  (Fast growing congregations were selected based on significant growth in worship attendance between 2004 and 2009 relative to other PC(USA) congregations.)  By comparing survey data from worshipers in fast growing PC(USA) congregations with 2008/2009 data collected from worshipers in a random sample of PC(USA) congregations, what can we learn about the characteristics of growing mainline Protestant churches?

 Worshipers feel spiritually fed in fast growing congregations.  Nearly four in ten PC(USA) worshipers in fast growing congregations (38%) experienced much growth in their faith in the past year, growth that came primarily through their congregation.  Only three in ten worshipers in the random sample of PC(USA) congregations (31%) experienced this same growth in faith.  While 31% of worshipers in the random sample of PC(USA) congregations “strongly agree” that their spiritual needs are being met in their congregation, 39% of worshipers in fast growing PC(USA) churches report this level of spiritual fulfillment from their congregation.  (Most of the rest in both groups “agree” that their spiritual needs are being met.)

More worshipers in fast growing congregations express satisfaction with the children/youth programs.  While a majority of worshipers in the random sample of PC(USA) churches are “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with children’s programming (59%), two-thirds in fast growing PC(USA) churches are (67%).

More worshipers in fast growing congregations experience enriching worship. More worshipers in fast growing PC(USA) churches than in the random sample of PC(USA) churches “always” or “usually” experience the following in worship: a sense of God’s presence (80% of worshipers in fast growing congregations, compared to 76% in the random sample); inspiration (78%; 74%); awe or mystery (25%; 20%).  In fast growing PC(USA) congregations, fewer worshipers experience boredom (29% experience it “always,” “usually,” or “sometimes,” compared to 35% in the PC(USA) random sample of worshipers) and frustration (26%; 30%).

The sense of belonging excels in fast growing churches.  Over half of worshipers in fast growing PC(USA) congregations (51%) feel a strong and growing sense of belonging to the congregation, while only 45% of worshipers in the random sample of PC(USA) congregations do.  Over one-third of worshipers in fast growing PC(USA) congregations (35%) participate in the activities of the congregation more now than they did two years ago, compared to 30% of worshipers in the random sample of PC(USA) churches.  The importance of worshipers’ sense of belonging should not be underestimated.  After giving up on church for a decade in early adulthood, author and speaker Christian Piatt names the sense of belonging he found in a church community as one of the main reasons he began attending church again.

Worshipers in fast growing PC(USA) churches experience congregational life differently when compared to worshipers in typical PC(USA) congregations.  In an upcoming blog post we will talk about two more characteristics of fast growing PC(USA) churches that really set them apart from the crowd: empowering leadership and a future-oriented focus.