by David Briggs
Sometimes, congregational leaders may be tempted to think it will take a miracle to reverse declining memberships as fewer young adults can be found in the pews.
It is not easy developing vital congregations in an age of economic uncertainty when religious observance is more of a choice than an obligation. There can be a tendency to hunker down and spend more energy on preservation than taking the risks necessary for growth.
Just a quarter of worshippers in the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey reported a sense of excitement about the congregation’s future, down from a third of respondents excited about the future of their house of worship in 2001. Just 30 percent of respondents to the 2008-2009 survey said they believe their congregations are already moving in new directions.
The real miracle may lie in the willingness of congregations to leave their comfort zones and implement changes that are welcoming to young adults and others in the community.
Yet there lies the path to vitality and growth, research indicates.
The congregational life survey has found that vital congregations are open to multiple ways to reach worshippers from young adult singles to young families to older worshippers. Cultivating an active laity open to welcoming and supporting newcomers can involve practices from planting new churches to offering multiple small groups to employing social media and new technology to offering more services with different worship styles.
And now a new report analyzing the 2010 Faith Communities Today study of more than 11,000 congregations lends more support for innovative ways to reach young adults. The profile by researchers Monte Sahlin of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership and David Roozen of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research explores the characteristics of the mere 16 percent of those congregations where 21 percent or more of participants are ages 18 to 34.
A major part of what makes those congregations distinctive is an openness to change:
- Congregations that either grew or declined by more than 10 percent in the last decade were more likely to have large numbers of young adults than congregations that experienced modest growth or decline. “Does this suggest that there is something about relatively stable-state congregations that is least attractive to young adults?” Sahlin and Roozen asked.
- Congregations that offered many programs and activities were nearly twice as likely to have significant young adult participation as congregations with few or no programs.
- Religious communities organized in the past decade were more than three times as likely to have a significant number of young adults as congregations organized before 1976.
- Congregations that reported multiple uses of technology such as social media and websites were twice as likely to have a significant percentage of young adults as those that reported marginal use.
What has not changed is that spirituality is a key element of attracting people to congregations.
Congregations that indicated they place "quite a bit" or "a lot" of emphasis on spiritual practices such as prayer and Bible reading were twice as likely to have a significant number of young adult participants as those who placed only "some" or "little" emphasis on such practices. Congregations reporting high levels of spiritual vitality were three times as likely to have significant numbers of young adults as congregations with low spiritual vitality.
What the findings appear to show is that one size does not fit all when it comes to meeting the diverse spiritual needs of congregants.
For example, three-quarters of worshippers ages 65 and over in the US CLS survey said traditional hymns are one of their two favorite styles of music in worship; less than three in 10 worshippers ages 15 to 24 have similar preferences.
It may take a miracle, but there is no magic path to congregational vitality, Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce of the congregational life survey note in their book “Places of Promise: Finding Strength in Your Congregation’s Location.”
Citing the distinction made by Beverly Prestwood-Taylor and Karen Nell Smith of the Brookfield Institute, Woolever and Bruce say congregation members place their faith in magic when they are not willing to change, take no risks and are disappointed when nothing happens.
However, those who place their faith in miracles:
- Are realistic about the facts.
- Are willing to take risks and make sacrifices.
- Open their hearts, seeking to know the change to which God is calling us.
- Discover that God “is with us in the risk.”
Do you believe in miracles?