By Cynthia Woolever
In vital places of worship, people have a strong sense of belonging to the congregation. Yet we found that this aspect of congregational life seemed to diminish between 2001 and 2008. Is that important? We believe it is.
Congregations with a healthy heart touch worshipers’ feelings. When worshipers have a strong sense of belonging to the church, they feel connected and accepted. Finding a place within the family, school, groups of friends, or church is a basic human need. Mental health experts point to the role of belonging in combating depression and loneliness.
The morale of the congregation as a whole rests on the proportion of worshipers who feel a strong sense of connection there. Multiple ties with friends and family in the church foster a greater sense of belonging. People begin to identify personally with the congregation. In contrast, when worshipers feel less attached, they are apt to participate less over time and may eventually drift away entirely.
Unlike worship attendance figures or the number of baptisms, we cannot directly observe a sense of belonging because it is subjective. So, how can we measure it?
Here are the three indicators we used in 2001 and 2008:
The percentage of worshipers who:
- Feel their sense of belonging to this congregation is strong and growing
- Report they are participating in the activities of the congregation more than they did two years ago
- Say most of their closest friends are part of the congregation
As the table shows, all three measures of belonging declined from 2001 to 2008.
These changes show that worshipers today do not identify as strongly with their congregation as they did in 2001. Given these dramatic results, how can we be sure that the findings are not just some fluke?
We look to the small random sample of congregations that participated in our research project back in 2001 and again in 2008. Information from this subgroup of churches helps us examine the nature of change over time in a more specific way.
We found that worshipers’ sense of belonging dropped significantly even in this sample of repeating churches. The findings were also consistent across faith groups—the sense of belonging declined sharply among mainline and conservative Protestants as well as among those attending Catholic parishes.
A strong sense of belonging is linked to high levels of participation, spiritual growth, and outreach. Thus, there is no way to consider the belonging decline as a positive outcome for congregations.
Congregations with many worshipers who strongly identify with the church use intentional strategies to boost those connections. Can your congregation say “yes” to these questions?
- Do we have an intentional system that helps all new attendees become involved in a group within six weeks?
- Do we provide the opportunity for all new attendees to develop five to seven new friends in the congregation within the first six months?
- Do we have an intentional system that matches all new attendees with a role or responsibility within the first six months?
- Do we have a large number of entry-level places of service?
- Do we have an openness to beginning the kinds of new ministries each year in which new attendees want to be involved?
- Do we provide several kinds of spiritual growth opportunities that help new attendees experience a life-transforming connection with God?
Taking Care of Basics
What level of attachment do worshipers in your congregation experience? Have you asked them lately? Consider using the U.S. Congregational Life Survey in your congregation. Sense of Belonging is one congregational health dimension included in the worship survey. You can find out how your worshipers feel about the congregation along with their perceptions of spiritual growth. Learn how.