Key factors identified for vital congregations

Lively, vital churches come in all sizes, locations, and settings says a new study commissioned by the United Methodist Church, but they consistently share some common factors that work together to influence congregational vitality. That means what works to make those churches energetic and growing can likely work for other churches too.

Dynamic churches with high attendance, growth, and engagement tend to have inspirational topical preaching, lots of small groups including programs for children and youth, and a mix of both traditional and contemporary worship services, including contemporary music and multimedia in contemporary services. Other factors include effective lay leaders, rotating lay leadership, pastors who work at developing and mentoring lay leaders, and length of pastoral appointment.

An essential finding of the research was that it’s the combination of factors that contribute to vitality, rather than any one or two.
“We’ve taken a data-driven approach to identify what works for thriving congregations large and small, both rural and urban, all over the U.S.,” said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, chair of the denominational Call to Action committee that engaged the global consulting firm Towers Watson to conduct the study. “While there’s no silver bullet, we believe these findings can lead to vitality for many more congregations.”

“Lively churches offer more than one style of worship. They work hard to make preaching interesting and relevant. They encourage more lay members to take on leadership roles. They start small groups and keep them going,” Palmer said. “If more churches do these things, we believe we will see measurable positive results over time.”

Robust and comprehensive research on data from various sources using proven data collection and analysis techniques was conducted in order to gain highly statistically reliable information about the cluster of factors that lead to congregations being more vital as evidenced by selected vitality indicators.

The process included interviews with stakeholders across the United Methodist Church, group meetings, and surveys targeted at different stakeholder groups. In addition, data on attendance, growth, and engagement from over 32,000 United Methodist churches in North America was analyzed.

The second body of research was a system-wide operational assessment of the connectional church which looked at how the denomination is currently using people, money, and processes at the district, annual conference, and general church levels.
The report concludes that the church is “confronting a ‘creeping crisis of relevancy’ of both internal and external origin” and “although the crisis is being influenced by financial duress, it is not foremost a financial crisis.”

The study indicated some key areas where improvement is needed including:
• More clarity and understanding about the denomination’s mission, culture, and values
• Less perceived organizational “distance” between and among the foundational units of the church
• Better defined leadership roles, responsibilities, and accountability; and improvements in trust
• More standardized management processes and reporting systems
• Utilizing opportunities for improved affordability and effectiveness.

“It’s important that we align our culture, structures and processes in ways that support vitality in congregations,” said Palmer. “The findings confirmed that there are key areas that need improvement. The steering team and many others share a commitment to address these elements as we enter the next phases of our work.”

This is a special report from United Methodist Communications.