Church Growth in the 2010s, Part 4: Theology and Mission

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 fourth covers theology and mission.

The Theological Edges. The survey includes all types of religious congregations in America, including Christian (96%) and non-Christian (4%). Not surprisingly, mainline Protestant congregations are least likely to grow. 19% of mainline churches are growing, while 43% of conservative Protestant congregations are growing. But drill down a bit and it gets interesting. The survey says, “When all congregations are combined, there is very little relationship between growth and theological orientation.” Yet the survey also later says, “in terms of congregational identity, the most important factor was whether a congregation was part of a conservative/evangelical religious body.” Conservative churches are more likely to grow, even when controlling for other factors.

When you drill down within conservative churches, more interesting findings emerge. Among churches in the broad category of conservative/ evangelical, 46% of (relatively) liberal churches are growing and 45% of very conservative churches are growing.

Further, overall congregations identified as very conservative (39%) or very liberal (35%) are more likely to grow, while more moderate congregations (25-31%) are less likely to grow.

In other words, “it is not theological conservatism per se that leads to growth, but rather something intrinsic to the evangelical/conservative Christian family and their constituency.” I suggest factors may include the benefit of reaching younger demographic, which leads to higher birth rates and more sustainability; a higher level of member expectation; and a stronger emphasis on church growth and evangelism as congregational values.

Clarity of mission. Theology offers a sense of congregational identity. Out of theology comes mission, or the reason for being for a church. The survey says, “Growing churches are clear about why they exist and what they are to be doing.” 45% of churches with a strong missional purpose are growing, whereas only 16% without a strong missional purpose are growing.

Conflicts. Congregations with major conflicts decline. This is no surprise. The survey puts a number to it: Churches with no major conflicts in the last five years are only 39% likely to decline, but churches with 4 or more major areas of conflict are 64% likely to decline. The major sources of conflict? Not worship, program priorities, member behavior, or the actions of a denomination–in spite of all the chatter about these topics. There are only two: leadership style and money.

Part 1: Social and Ethnic Position

Part 2: Age

Part 3: Leadership