Survey challenges churches to reach out

Sunday, June 9, 2002

     Religious leaders are sifting through the results of the biggest survey of congregations ever conducted in hopes of improving their mission.
     The U.S. Congregational Life Survey is based on the answers of 300,000 worshippers in more than 2,000 congregations from 50 denominations and faith groups, including Jewish congregations and Buddhist communities. It was conducted during or after worship services in April 2001, and results were mailed out in April. It was coordinated by an ecumenical group from the offices of the Presbyterian Church USA in Louisville, Ky., with money from the Lilly Endowment and the Louisville Institute.
     Some of the findings pose challenges for churches concerned about outreach.
          • Most churches aren't very successful in attracting people who don't ordinarily go to church.
     Only 7 percent of new members (those who joined in the past five years) were not already connected with a church. The great majority came from other churches, and more than half transferred from churches in the same denomination. A third of all worshippers have switched churches within the past five years.
     "In a sense, we're playing musical chairs," survey director Cynthia Woolever said in a phone interview from Louisville.
     That leads those studying the survey to ask how well they are succeeding in reaching those outside the churches. "All you're doing is recycling," said Craig This, director of research and planning for the United Methodist Church's General Council on Ministries, when he saw the figures. Methodists are involved in a major television ad campaign to try to attract more outsiders.
     • Most churches aren't attracting men.
     While men make up 49 percent of the U.S. population, just 39 percent of worshippers are men. That leads those studying the survey to wonder why the church is a women's institution, and to ask what churches can do to make services more attractive to men.
     • Most members never invite anybody to church.
     Less than half (46 percent) of worshippers said they invited someone who is not currently attending church to a worship service within the last year.
     No other program for getting people to church works better than a personal invitation, studies consistently find. So why aren't more members inviting others to church? Is it because they are shy about their faith, because they aren't getting to know those outside the church or because they would be embarrassed by the quality of the services? Those are the questions that each congregation needs to answer.
     On any given Sunday in the average church, two out of 100 people are there for the first time, according to the survey. Of those visitors, many of whom may choose not to join, a third aren't involved in another church.
     • Most worshippers only come on Sunday mornings.
     The good news is 83 percent of worshippers attend almost every week. The bad news is only about 45 percent who come on Sundays are involved in anything beyond that service, such as Sunday school, Bible study or prayer group. "I think that's a little bit disturbing that people are just coming to worship and that's it," said Woolever, one of the survey's directors. She was concerned about "the thin layer of involvement in congregational life."
     The first challenge is for churches to find more ways to involve more people in activities outside the worship service. The second is to make the service more meaningful and helpful for those who rely on it as their primary source of spiritual encouragement.
     A summary of the survey can be found on the Internet at
     An 85-page book summarizing the results costs $14.95. It's called "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why" and can be ordered through the Web site or from John Knox Press at (800) 227-2872.

     Dave Munday covers religion and can be reached at 937-5720 or

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