To grow or not to grow

It’s what leaders of congregations yearn for: to build a congregation that’s thriving and growing. They work hard to offer the best they can. Then the question becomes: how to get more people to give it a chance?

But understanding the numerical growth of congregations is tricky — congregations don’t always grow for the reasons people think they will or should. For example, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that congregations where worshipers are growing spiritually are less likely than others to be growing numerically — a result that surprised the researchers. But this may reflect another finding — congregations that are growing spiritually often aren’t particularly good at welcoming new people.

The research found a truckload of other factors that also don’t correlate with numerical growth — as important as some of these factors may be to congregational vitality, they don’t seem to have any impact on growth at all. Among them: meaningful worship, having a sense of belonging, empowering leadership, the worshipers’ average age and average income, the percentage of women in the congregation, and theology — whether a church is Catholic, mainline Protestant, and so on.

In fact, the research found that only three of the 10 identified congregational strengths do predict numerical growth — caring for children and young people, participating in the congregation, and welcoming new people.

One of the strongest predictors of whether a congregation will grow numerically is how well it does in caring for children and teenagers. Congregations that do well in this area — where children come to church with their parents, where the congregation values this kind of ministry, and where people are satisfied with what the congregation offers their children — are more likely to be getting bigger.

There are at least two reasons for that. First, some of those children grow up and stick around — as adults, sometimes with families of their own, they remain involved, in part because the congregation was a good place for them growing up. And second, offering high-quality programs for children and teenagers can be a draw for families who are searching for exactly that. Some people will pick a congregation because it has a strong Sunday school or youth program or because it challenges teenagers with mission trips that get them thinking about the bigger world and excited about their faith.

Getting people to participate in congregational life — in small groups and Bible studies and fellowship activities, figuring out what the congregation should be about, giving to the congregation, and becoming leaders themselves — is another powerful predictor of numerical growth, even when other factors are taken into account, the survey found. But just having a sense of belonging — feeling at home there — doesn’t predict numerical growth. That’s probably more important in keeping the loyalty of folks who are already there than in bringing in new faces.

Some people believe that congregations grow because the people who worship there regularly invite others to come along — they like their congregation so much they want their friends, family, and neighbors to worship there, too. Most people who visit a congregation for the first time show up because someone they know invited them. But to make the effort to keep returning, they have to find something worth coming back for — and that often includes strong programs for their children and worship that resonates with their souls.

Congregations that show strength in welcoming new people, where significant numbers of folks began worshiping there in the last five years, are more likely to be experiencing numerical growth (a sign that people are not just coming in the front door, staying a bit, then bolting for the back door — or wandering out, because they found no compelling reason to stay). That pattern doesn’t always hold true — sometimes factors such as being in a high-mobility area or in a place with a quickly-shifting economy can cause more people to move away than can be replaced through the front door.

And, surprisingly, the research found that a few other factors — otherwise seen as congregational strengths — also have a negative correlation with congregational growth. In other words, when those strengths are present, a congregation is not usually increasing in numbers.

The three strengths that correlate with numerical decline or lack of growth are growing spiritually, focusing on the community and sharing faith. The reasons for these negative correlations? Most likely they occur because congregations with those particular three strengths tend to be below — average on some of the other strengths that are significant for numerical growth.

“We want to grow! Let’s bring in new people!”

Seems simple. But it’s not.