Survey Tracks Trends in Evangelical, Oldline Congregations

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. congregations said they feel at least a little competition from nearby churches, a new survey shows.

Oldline Protestant churches were most likely to say competition with nearby congregations is an obstacle to attracting new people, according to a national survey called American Congregations 2008, which was released Friday.

Forty-two percent of oldline Protestant churches indicated feeling the competition compared to 19 percent of evangelical Protestant ones and 13 percent of Catholic/Orthodox churches.

The report, which was written by David A. Roozen, director of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership and professor of Religion and Society at Hartford Seminary, speculated that the sense of competition among oldline churches is being driven by "sameness" compared to other congregations.

"Indeed, the FACT (Faith Communities Today) 2008 survey shows that the greater a congregation's sense of being different and the greater a congregation's clarity about its purpose, the less competition it feels from others," the report states.

Notably, 37 percent of non-Christian groups – including Jewish, Muslim, and Baha'i – said they feel at least some competition in drawing newcomers.

FACT 2008 is the latest in a series of trend-tracking national surveys of U.S. congregations conducted by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership. CCSP is a collaborative, multifaith coalition of American faith communities affiliated with Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The 2008 report, based on responses from more than 2,500 congregations, provides an in-depth look at various aspects of congregational life, including worship, identity, programs, fiscal health, and attracting and tracking new members, among others.

While competition from nearby congregations is a challenge for many, surveyed congregations were most likely to identify the general lack of interest in religion as an obstacle to attracting new people. Seventy-six percent said the lack of interest was at least a little bit of a challenge.

Mobile population was another challenge.

The latest survey found a slight uptick in evangelism and recruitment activity compared to 2005. Twelve to 14 percent more Protestant congregations that reported high levels of evangelism or recruitment activities also reported worship attendance growth over the past five years than was the case for congregations with no or little evangelism or recruitment activities. Larger congregations (with 400 or more attendees) experienced higher growth spurts (more than 30 percent jump) compared to smaller churches.

When it comes to helping newcomers assimilate, the survey found that congregations with high spiritual vitality are more intentional in their attention to new persons than less spiritually vital congregations.

Congregations in America conduct lots of programs but they (especially evangelical Protestant churches) place particular emphasis on Sunday School or religious school classes. The emphasis on music program is on par with Scripture study (in addition to Sunday School), the study found.

Compared to other congregations, non-Christian ones were found to most likely specialize in Scripture study and parenting or marriage enrichment activities. Evangelical churches were most likely to specialize in spiritual development activities, support groups, evangelism and young, single adult activities. Oldline Protestants were most likely to focus on community service activities and music program. And the specialty for Catholic/Orthodox churches was fellowships and sports activities.

Among other findings, congregations that identify themselves as more liberal were most likely to be "willing to change to meet new challenges," compared to congregations that are more conservative or right in the middle.

Also, while more than half (53 percent) of more conservative congregations said they hold strong belief and moral values, only 29 percent of more liberal ones said the same. More conservative groups (45 percent) were more likely to consider themselves a close-knit family compared to more liberal congregations (31 percent).

In regards to fiscal health, the survey revealed that congregations within the evangelical Protestant family were in the most positive fiscal circumstances, followed by the Catholic/Orthodox family, world religions (non-Christians) and oldline Protestantism, respectively.

It also showed that congregations with better financial health also had better spiritual vitality.

Among all congregations, the larger proportion of a total budget went toward salary and benefits. This was especially the case for oldline Protestant churches where 49 percent of their budget was directed to salary and benefits, compared to only 31 percent among evangelical congregations. Evangelical churches, meanwhile, allocated a higher proportion of their budget to buildings and operations (30 percent) and program support and materials (17 percent) compared to oldline Protestants (24 percent and 9 percent, respectively).

Surprisingly, the FACT report found that congregations with leaders who have a higher level of education scored lower in terms of spiritual vitality, attendance gain and financial health.

Fifty-one percent of evangelical Protestant churches with leaders who have a masters degree or higher recorded an attendance gain of two percent or more in the last five years. Such growth was seen among 54 percent of evangelical churches led by those with less than a masters degree.

In contrast to formal education, continuing education has a more noticeable and positive effect on congregational vitality, the study noted.

Other key findings: Congregations that changed to contemporary worship in the past five years show elevated levels of spiritual vitality and growth in worship attendance. In clergy time usage, worship and teaching about the faith are the top task priorities for both Protestant families. The Oldline congregations put higher priority on worship and the Evangelical congregations put higher priority on teaching. Catholic/Orthodox leaders spent more time and attention on administration than any other task.

Earlier FACT surveys were taken in 2000 and 2005. The latest survey was conducted to track short-term changes in a limited number of key areas of congregational life and structure, and to plumb the dynamics of selected congregational practices and challenges.

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