Trends in today’s churchesBy John A. Esau
Two main things distinguish a healthy congregation. First, members have a clear sense of identity; they know who they are. They are strong in their relationships and the things they value.
Second, members possess a clear and compelling vision of their future. They know where they are going and are committed to get there.
These are two of the conclusions in A Field Guide to U. S. Congregations, published in 2010 by Westminster John Knox Press. The authors are Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce.
The book is the report of the most extensive sociological study ever conducted of congregations. The project started in 2001 with an international study surveying 1.2 million people in 12,000 congregations.
In 2008 a follow-up survey was conducted of 500,000 participants in the United States only. This book is the result of the second survey.
Included in the current survey were congregations of evangelical and mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Participants came from a diversity of groups such as Evangelical Free Church, United Methodist Church, Reform Judaism, Mennonite Church USA, and many others.
The majority of those surveyed expressed a high level of satisfaction with their congregation; 85 percent indicate that their spiritual needs are being met there. Fifty-six percent say that their congregation helps them in their daily living “to a great extent,” and 32 percent say the same “to some extent.” Six percent express boredom with their worship experience, and 5 percent express frustration.
Research like this is important because those responsible for shaping religious life need to know how people experience reality. Far too often we make assumptions based on perceptions and wishes rather than facts and data.
So what is happening in congregations? What about attendance?
Twenty-two percent of Protestant congregations report increasing worship attendance, 28 percent stable attendance, and 50 percent declining worship attendance. Typically, worship attendance is about 50 percent of the membership.
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