FACT square logoFaith Communities Today Newsletter 
Issue 7December 2010 
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The identity and mission of a congregation and its vitality and growth are clearly intertwined. This relationship may be the most critical factor in developing a healthy, vigorous religious group. Despite the long-held notion that "conservative churches are growing" and liberal congregations are in decline, in fact very conservative and very liberal congregations are more likely to be spiritually vital and alive with a slight edge to the "liberal" groups.

Research from the largest, ongoing study of American congregations demonstrates that this is generally true across all faiths, and is particularly true for Protestant local churches. Intangible in many ways, indicators have been developed over a decade of research that provide a clear profile of the thriving congregation.

Identity and Mission

The shared beliefs of a congregation are an essential dimension of its identity, but not the whole thing. Asked to describe the theological outlook of their congregation, three out of four report that the majority of the people who attend their group are at least somewhat conservative. Less than one in ten congregations report that the majority of their participants are at least somewhat liberal, while one in six (16 percent) see their congregation as "right in the middle."

Of course these are relative viewpoints and outside of any objective definition. When the reference point is inserted in the question so their position is in comparison to other congregations in their denomination or religion, the responses change significantly. Four in ten congregations say they are conservative, about the same number report they are in the middle and one in five indicate they are liberal. There is also a change-but not as great-when other congregations in the local community become the reference point.

There is a conservative tilt to organized religion in contemporary America, but the FACT research found greater vitality at both the liberal and conservative extreme as compared to the middle ground. Among congregations self-identified as the most liberal, 46 percent have had an attendance growth of ten percent or more over the past five years and the same is true for 44 percent of the most conservative congregations. In the middle this percentage drops as low as 35 percent. A similar U-shaped curve is found in measures of spiritual vitality and sense of mission, and in each case the most liberal congregations have the highest percentages.

Differences: "Liberal" & "Conservative" Congregations

Those congregations (across all faiths) that identify themselves as "liberal" place more emphasis on activities than do "conservative" congregations, and also place more emphasis on ministry in the community and openness to change. Self-identified "conservative" congregations place more emphasis on strong beliefs and values, as well as on scripture and theology and on the quality of their internal relationships.

Much of the research and writing about church growth focuses on "content" issues, but this research demonstrates "that strength of identity or distinctiveness of identity is equally or more important," writes David Roozen, author of American Congregations 2008 and coordinator of the interfaith group that conducted the research.

Mission and Spiritual Vitality

Congregations that see themselves as very different from the other congregations in their local community (whether the most conservative or the most liberal) also have a much stronger sense of mission or purpose. "A strong sense of self is related to spiritual vitality," reports Roozen. Among Christian churches "twice as many congregations with a strong sense of self have high spiritual vitality." There are also data that "suggests that a congregation's awareness of its distinctiveness is perhaps more important than the mere fact of being different." The percentage of young adult participants may also be a significant factor related to spiritual vitality and growth, although the type of community a congregation is located in has no significant influence.

You can download a copy of this research here.

Resources on Identity & Mission 
Leading Ideas, the newsletter of the Lewis Center published in November "Ten Misconceptions about Church Vitality and Growth." Get a copy here.
Ed Stetzer, researcher for the Southern Baptist Convention and participant in the FACT network, comments here.
"Rethinking church: Measuring growth and vitality" provides a perspective from the United Church of Christ. Connect with it here.   

The Mennonite Church USA has published a congregational Bible study on identity. Together with other materials it is available at www.Mennoniteusa.org/identity.

Mark Bender from Northway Christian Church has written a congregational leader's view of "Hallmarks of a Vital Congregation" and it can be read here.

What is a vital congregation in the context of small congregations? This is the focus of an Episcopal blog here.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has published two important research papers related to this topic. "Brand Name Identity in a Post-denominational Age" by Adair Lummis, a Muslim scholar, and "Oldline Protestantism: Pockets of Vitality" by David Roozen.    

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi has written on "Identity" here.
The Alban Institute has published two articles on this topic Imagining Congregational Identity in 2006 and Myths about Communicating Congregational Identity in 2008.   

The well-known church consultant, Lyle E. Schaller, has written a piece entitled "What is Your Self-identity?" which has been published on line.

Tools to Develop Vital Churches is a web site web site with many resources on this topic maintained by the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida.

"Reclaiming church identity" is the title of an article by Bruce Manners in a 2009 issue of Ministry. Access it here.

Synagogue 3000 Reports on Outreach to Gen X

Another research report from the Synagogue Studies Institute was published in the November issue of S3K Report. It reviews a project called NITA which is reaching out to Generation X adults who are not members of a Jewish organization although they have some family background in Judaism. This new report and others in the series can be downloaded at www.synagogue3000.org/s3k-reports. 

FACT 2010 Data Collection Will End December 31

Researchers in more than 40 national faith communities are in the final stages of data collection for the Faith Communities Today (FACT) 2010 survey. Some are already done. This is the largest study of local religious congregations ever attempted by any research enterprise and is particularly interesting because it marks a full decade since the first FACT survey in 2000. Parallel to the census, there will be good information about trends in American religious life when these data are published. Much work remains in 2011 to do the analysis, write reports, etc. We will keep you posted on progress.

For further information about FACT, or to learn how to join the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership (CCSP), contact David Roozen at roozen@hartsem.edu.