Church Growth in the 2010s, Part 1: Social and Ethnic Position

Observers of church growth may be familiar with the ongoing Hartford Institute study of congregations in America. For over 25 years, the Institute has tracked data related to the vitality of congregations. Their latest survey, covering the period from 2005-2010, offers several fascinating insights on the current state of church growth in America. If you lead a church in any capacity or work with those who do, these findings may be helpful. I highlight a variety of results in a series of six blog posts. The first covers demographics.

The Rise of the Urban Church. Since the beginning of the survey in 1996, newer suburbs offered the greatest potential for church growth. That has changed. Now downtown urban environments offer the greatest potential for growth. 46% of downtown or central city congregations are growing, versus 40% of churches in newer suburbs and 34% of churches in older suburbs. By contrast, 72% of churches in newer suburbs were growing in 2005, the time of the previous survey. As the survey states, “growth is no longer nearly automatic for congregations in newer suburbs.”

While the importance of the location of a congregation seems to have declined, the importance of its region in the country remains high. 42% of Southern churches are growing, versus 29% of churches from other regions. “Congregations do better in the South because it is both a growing region and because the culture is more supportive of religion.”

Multi-Ethnic Congregations. Only 30% of predominantly white, or European-American, congregations are growing, but 47% of non-white congregations are growing. Part of this is simple demographics, as Anglo populations have reached “zero population growth” in America. Part of it is the rise of many newer and younger non-Anglo congregations, which as stated are more likely to grow because of their young congregational age.

Regardless of the reasons, the takeaway is that if an established Anglo congregation wants to grow, it should seriously consider reaching out to different ethnic groups in its community. A great example of this is Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, a predominantly Anglo, suburban, Southern Baptist congregation whose initial growth occurred in the 1970-1980s. They are growing again in the 2010s because they’ve reinvented themselves as an urban, multi-ethnic congregation under the adaptive leadership of Gary Smith, who has pastored the church since 1982. (Gary is working on a book for me at Abingdon Press.)

About the survey. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research released the latest Faith Communities Today (FACT 2010) survey in their decades-long research project measuring congregational development. Established in 1996, FACT 2010 is conducted by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a multi-faith coalition of denominations and religious groups whose aim is to advance public understanding of religious organizations in America.

The survey acknowledges that church growth is not a self-sustaining goal for most congregations, but a by-product of a desire to communicate their message and increase viability. Growth is measured by change in average weekly worship attendance (AWA) from 2005 to 2010 using a 5-category growth/decline metric. While the validity of using AWA as a primary growth assessment has been questioned, it is still arguably the clearest way to measure the vitality of a local congregation. The survey sample included over 11,000 congregations.

I am posting this series on the survey because I believe that healthy churches grow.