We've looked at congregational strength and identified building blocks of vitality in four areas:
- Spiritual Connections
Spiritual Connections are made through worshipers' private devotions and their participation in
congregational activities such as worship. Congregations focus on Spiritual Connections by
cultivating faith and responding to the spiritual needs of their worshipers.
Strength #1. Private Devotional Activities. The first strength in this area involves
worshipers' private devotional activities. We found that the majority of worshipers (63%) spend
at least a few times a week in private devotional activities things like reading the Bible or other
devotional materials, praying, or meditating. In fact, 45% do so every day! The
remaining 39% of worshipers do so less often -- once a week, occasionally, or never.
You might ask: What difference does it make? Well, imagine two congregations: In one
congregation, 80% of people spend time every day in private devotional activities. In the other
congregation, only 1 in 10 (10%) people spend time in private devotional activities that often.
What impact would this have on the lives of the people in these two congregations and what
impact would it have on the life of each congregation? How might a deepening spiritual life
serve as a well the congregation could draw upon to discern its calling?
Strength #2. Growth in Faith. The second strength in the area of Spiritual Connections
is the finding that half of all worshipers (55%) say they have experienced much growth in
their faith in the last year. Another 38% have experienced some spiritual growth. This is
And what has fostered their growth in faith? Perhaps listening to talk radio, watching television,
or spending time at the gym? No. The number one reason worshipers give for their
growth in faith is their participation in the congregation. Just imagine this headline: Most
worshipers have grown in their faith in the last year by worshiping with others and taking part
together in congregational activities! This is an amazing finding in a world of private,
individualized religion and search for meaning.
- Inside Connections
Inside Connections focus on the ways worshipers connect with others in the congregation through group
activities, serving in leadership roles, and financial support.
Strength #1. New People. The first strength in the area of Inside Connections is the
finding that one-third of worshipers are new people who've been attending their current
congregation for five years or less! In fact, 20% are new within the last two years. (Learn more
about new people.)
This means the turnover rate in the average congregation is fairly high. With the inflow of new
people comes the potential of new ideas and new energy. How can congregations readily involve
new people as partners in the congregation's ministry? How can they make them feel welcome?
Strength #2. Strong Sense of Belonging. The second strength in the area of Inside Connections is the
fact that eight in ten worshipers feel a strong sense of belonging to the place where they worship.
And, more say that sense of belonging is growing than say it is steady or not as strong as it used to be.
- Outside Connections
Outside Connections include the ways that the congregation and its worshipers connect with the
community and with non-members, including service to the community, caring for neighbors, inviting
other to attend, and welcoming newcomers.
Strength #1. Involvement in Community Service. We asked worshipers if they were
involved in any community service, social service, or advocacy groups? Almost half (45%) said
"yes." Some said they were involved in these kinds of service activities through the
congregation (19%), but an even larger number (31%) said they were involved in these
kinds of groups outside the congregation.
We've often missed this latter type of involvement -- community service activities that
worshipers pursue other than through the congregation. Congregations are often unaware of the
community service work their worshipers do as individuals or families, or through other
organizations. Likewise, community groups and other organizations that benefit from the
services of these individuals may never be aware that they serve because of their religious beliefs
or their ties to a particular faith tradition. So, one of the clear strengths of congregations in the
are of Outside Connections is the way they enable their worshipers to serve the community. Are
there ways for the congregation to be even more proactive in helping their participants to deepen
or extend their community service? Or to recognize and support participants current ministry in
Strength #2. Good Neighbors and Good Citizens. A second strength in the area of
Outside Connections is that worshipers are "good neighbors" and "good citizens." In the 12
months before the survey:
- two-thirds (73%) donated money to a charitable organization (other than their congregation)
- half (49%) prepared or gave food to someone outside their family or congregation
- more than one in four (30%) loaned money to someone outside their family
- more than one in five (23%) helped someone outside their family find a job
- more than one in five (21%) cared for someone outside their family who was very sick
Worshipers are also "good citizens":
- they are more likely to vote than the average American (76% of worshipers voted in the last
presidential election, but just 50% of the U.S. population did)
- in the last year, 21% worked with others to try to solve a community problem
- 19% contacted an elected official about a public issue
Worshipers possess specific strengths in their connections to the community.
- Identity Connections
Identity Connections deal with who worshipers are do they look like other Americans? It also deals with
congregational identity and worshipers' vision for the future.
Strength #1. Highly Educated. The average worshiper is well educated. The U.S.
Census reports about 23% of the population has a college degree or higher education. Among
worshipers, the figure is 38%. This figure climbs to 46% for attendees less than 65 year of age.
Fully 87% overall have completed high school. This is an Identity Strength of worshipers.
This strength also appears to be a "universal." In each of the four countries (Australia, New
Zealand, England, and the U.S.) that participated in the project, the educational level of
worshipers exceeded the educational attainment in the general population. Media portrayals and
popular opinion about religion as a past-time of the ignorant or of people who are challenged by
critical thinking is simply false advertising.
Strength #2. Diversity of Families. Another strength in the area of Identity Connections
that we can highlight is the diversity of "family" types found in today's congregations. The
image of families like Ward and June, Wally and Beaver filling the pews is a false image. Large
percentages of worshipers are not currently living in a traditional 2-parent household: 16% have
never been married; 16% are divorced, widowed or separated; and 11% are in second marriages
after divorce or the death of a spouse. Furthermore, most (53%) do not have children living at
home. Married couples with children are the "minority profile" in congregations. We see this as
a strength because it mirrors the profile of the U.S. population. Married couples with children
are also now a minority percentage of households in America.
Cultural stereotypes persist of religious involvement as something for young, married couples
with kids. Others see church-going as the favorite past-time of older widows. But the truth is
that a wide variety of individuals and families attend worship services across America.
How can congregations more fully embrace worshipers in all life stages, all generations, and all
family configurations? How can we ensure that all are welcomed and served in our
Remember that all congregations are unique. Your congregation might not be able to claim all of these
national strengths as your own. But, each congregation has strengths that make it unique and that can be
celebrated. Find your strengths!
Not all of the results of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey pointed to strengths. There are also some
challenges that congregations face.