A study of the American church over the last decade reveals that churches that have adopted innovative and contemporary worship services have seen an increase in both attendance and in spiritual vitality, more so than those that have not.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research released the study, titled “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000-2010,” on Saturday. It was conducted as a part of a series of surveys called the Faith Communities Today (FACT) series with the cooperation of a total of 28,789 randomly-sampled American congregations.
David A. Roozen, the study's author, reported that the surge in contemporary worship that began in the 1990s continued through the first decade of this century, and has produced positive results for many congregations.
More than four out of 10 churches in 2010 either often or always used drums and electric guitars in their worship services. That was a 14 percent increase from the year 2000.
“Indeed, the increase is dramatic, especially for those who carry lingering memories of the church as the 'Rock of Ages,'” Roozen wrote in the report.
A worship service is made more contemporary by using instruments like guitars and drums, which seem to be more fitting for rock ’n’ roll than they are for 18th century hymns, but the survey looked at other church behaviors to determine whether or not the services are considered innovative.
Innovative churches do things differently. The study says some examples of innovation include adding a Saturday evening service, celebrating the Lord's Supper on a weekly basis (for non-liturgical congregations) or adding a “kids' sermon” to the order of service.
Congregations that are considered to be both innovative and contemporary were found to be more likely to have a high spiritual vitality.
Of the churches surveyed, 47 percent of those that are considered to be both contemporary and innovative in their worship services had a high spiritual vitality, as compared to 38 percent of those that are innovative but not contemporary, 23 percent that are contemporary but not innovative and 17 percent that are not considered innovative nor contemporary.
In addition to having a better spiritual vitality, churches that were both innovative and contemporary over the last decade generally saw the payoff in the area of attendance growth as well.
More than 60 percent of churches with services that are both innovative and contemporary experienced rapid attendance growth, while the same is true for 44 percent of churches that are contemporary but not innovative, 38 percent of those that are innovative but not contemporary and 26 percent of churches that are neither innovative nor contemporary.
The study also found an increase in the use of electronic communication technology to be a sweeping change that impacted churches across the nation over the last decade.
When the FACT questionnaire was compiled during the late 1990s, its designers didn't think the topic of communication technology was significant enough to even include in the survey.
“What a difference a decade makes!” Roozen remarked.
In 2010, more than 90 percent of churches used email, nearly 70 percent had their own websites and more than 40 percent had their own Facebook pages. Additionally, nearly 13 percent of churches had blogs and almost 12 percent created their own podcasts.
Roozen described the adoption of such technologies as “rapid and pervasive within religious organizations.”
“It appears that heavy users effectively use the new technology for marketing purposes, and that congregations struggling with growth the most are turning to technology with the same hope,” he added.
Congregations with contemporary worship services, he found, are three times as likely to utilize visual projection equipment than congregations that hold more traditional services.
Researchers found negative trends in churches as well. Weekend attendance numbers declined for the typical congregation over the last decade, while churches also struggled with issues regarding levels of vitality, financial health and levels of conflict within congregations.
“Despite bursts of innovation, pockets of vitality, and interesting forays into greater civic participation, American congregations enter the second decade of the 21st century a bit less healthy than at the turn of the century,” Roozen said in conclusion.