Do congregations have fingerprints?

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey identified 10 key strengths that make congregations successful -- characteristics that can be found in any type of congregation, whether it’s growing or declining, large or small, rural or urban.

Few congregations do well in all 10 areas.

But each congregation has something it does well, something worth taking pride in, even if the pews aren’t full and there’s not enough money in the bank. And if a congregation can figure out what its particular strengths are -- what it’s already doing well, what have been its foundations, what gives it life and energy -- then it can find ways to build from those things and push into the future.

Sometimes these strengths aren’t flashy, they may be quiet yet solid. Maybe this is a place with a community soup kitchen going back 20 years, or a terrific choir, or dedicated Sunday school teachers, or people who read the Bible every day and pray and pray and pray. These strengths are like the fingerprint of the congregation – they set it apart from other congregations. A congregation’s strengths don’t depend on a particular pastor or a few key leaders; they’re more part of the DNA of the place.

While people might expect that a congregation would understand instinctively its strengths and its weaknesses, “often they don’t, sometimes they’re really surprised,” said Deborah Bruce, one of the researchers with the U.S. Congregational Life Survey and co-author of Beyond the Ordinary: 10 Strengths of U.S. Congregations.

They may not recognize something they’re doing well -- or they may think they’re doing better in some areas than they really are. For example, certain congregations have the impression they’re doing well on stewardship and think “we’re really high givers,” Bruce said. “We’ll pull out the statistics and their per-member giving will be lower than the denominational average.”

Or a congregation might not be paying attention to the fact that it’s aging.

“All of a sudden you wake up one day and there are no kids there,” Bruce said. Her co-author, Cynthia Woolever, recalled one church where the “Young Marrieds” Sunday school class consisted of three widows, all senior citizens. But they’d been part of that group for so long “they never wanted to change the name of the class,” Woolever said.

Sometimes, people in congregations don’t know how to compare what they see every day -- what’s so familiar to them -- with what’s happening in other places. They don’t have any way to assess their own strengths and weaknesses and compare their strengths to other congregations.

For example, at one church in Indianapolis, more than half the people tithed, but “they did not know it was a strength and we could not convince them that it was,” Woolever said. But when people from that church shared those results with some other area congregations who’d also taken part in the study, “people’s mouths dropped open and they said, ‘How did you do that?’ ” Only then did the Indianapolis church realize that what they were accustomed to, what they took for granted, was really something special. They were encouraged to continue the behaviors that made them strong in the area of giving.

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey, the largest survey of worshipers ever conducted in the United States, involved more than 300,000 people who attended worship one weekend in April 2001 and includes results from more than 2,200 congregations from more than 50 faith groups, from Baptist, Catholic, and Pentecostal churches to Buddhist gatherings and to Jewish synagogues.

Congregations that did not participate in the initial study but still would like to pinpoint their strengths and see how they compare to other congregations have not missed the chance – there’s still a way to do that.

The research team responsible for the U.S. Congregational Life Survey offers the opportunity for congregations to take the survey and find out how they score on the 10 strengths. Congregations get their results four to six weeks after taking the survey, including information about how they compare to the national average, to other congregations from their denomination, and to congregations of a similar size. The customized reports congregations receive are easy to understand and use. Leader guides and videos walk leaders through the findings and point to the necessary actions to strengthen the congregation.

For more information about using the survey in your congregation, visit the U.S. Congregational Life Survey page, or contact the staff at (888) 728-7228 x2040.

Feel free to use this article in your ministry. Please cite its source: U.S. Congregations Web site (, The U.S. Congregational Life Survey, Louisville, Kentucky: U.S. Congregations and Research Services, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

If you have any questions about the survey or our findings, please call (888) 728-7228 x2040.