Does your faith tradition define your strengths?

The reasons aren’t always clear, but the numbers definitely show a pattern: conservative Protestant congregations and churches in historically-black denominations often show more strength than do mainline Protestant or Catholic congregations. ( Congregations can be placed in one of five categories: Catholic parishes, mainline Protestant denominations (e.g., Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ), conservative Protestant congregations (e.g., most Baptists, Pentecostals, Assembly of God, Seventh-day Adventists, Church of God, and independent conservative congregations), historically-black denominations (e.g., Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, National Baptists, etc.), and others (non-Christian congregations such as Jewish synagogues and Buddhist temples).)

In the U.S. Congregational Life Survey of more than 2,200 congregations, conservative Protestant and historically-black congregations outscored mainline Protestant and Catholic churches on a whole range of measures of congregational strength.

Theological persuasion proved to be a very strong predictor of congregational strength — so much so, researchers Deborah Bruce and Cynthia Woolever said, that if one could only know a single thing about a congregation, knowing its denominational affiliation or faith group would be the most helpful factor in predicting its strengths.

Why the differences? The survey doesn’t directly answer that — it measures the differences in scores, the “what” more than the “why.” But Woolever and Bruce suspect that something about the theological stance and core beliefs of conservative and historically-black congregations — perhaps a strong sense of purpose and identity — may be influencing their measures of strength.

For example, historically-black and conservative Protestant congregations scored significantly higher on the “growing spiritually” index — both had average overall scores of 55 percent on this index (compared with an overall score of 47 percent for congregations generally), placing the conservative and historically-black churches close to the top 20 percent. Mainline Protestant churches, with an average overall score of 41 percent, and Catholic churches, with 38 percent, scored lower.

Historically-black and conservative congregations also showed more strength in getting people to participate in the congregation. Historically-black congregations averaged 72 percent overall on the participation scale, compared with 69 percent for conservative Protestant congregations, 55 percent for mainline Protestant churches and 44 percent for Catholic congregations. The overall score for all congregations was 60 percent.

Historically-black and conservative congregations also scored better than average in meaningful worship, giving people a sense of belonging, and caring for children and youth.

And it’s probably not surprising that conservative Protestant churches and historically-black congregations scored higher than mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in sharing their faith — 20 percentage points higher (overall “sharing faith” scores averaged 45 percent for historically-black congregations, 43 percent for conservative Protestant churches, 23 percent for mainline Protestant congregations and just 20 percent for Catholic churches.) Worshipers at conservative Protestant and historically-black congregations are significantly more likely to invite people to worship, be involved in evangelistic outreach, and talk to others about their faith.

There were some areas in which mainline Protestant churches did show particular strength. Mainline congregations tend to do the best at reaching out to the community. Perhaps as a result of their emphasis on social justice, mainline Protestant churches and historically-black congregations were more likely to interact with their communities by providing service directly to others and advocating on behalf of those in need. Conservative Protestants were more likely to connect with the community through evangelism — by talking about their faith with people they know or encounter, or by inviting folks to come to worship or some other activity at church.

Overall, however, the pattern is clear.

Conservative Protestant and historically-black congregations outscore mainline Protestant and Catholic churches on nine of the 10 areas of strength. But that’s the general trend — there are mainline Protestant and Catholic churches that score high on each of the 10 strengths, just as there are conservative Protestant and historically-black churches that score low. Still the trend is hard news for Catholics and mainline Protestants to hear. But looking at the strengths of other theological traditions can be worthwhile. Understanding what others are doing well and why could be a catalyst, perhaps providing ideas for looking at one’s own tradition and practices in new and creative ways.