According to a new study, success stories often involve men, drums, a joyful environment, and a concerted effort not to be too "reverent."
That's the conclusion of a December report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a nonprofit research group at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. While most US churches continue to be predominantly of one race and to count more women than men in their pews, the HIRR survey of almost 900 congregations found growth is most likely when:
*A church is multiracial.
*Men make up at least 60 percent of regular participants.
*Leaders describe worship as "slightly to not at all" reverent.
*Drums or percussion are always used in worship.
Such innovations make churches exciting places to be, says report author Kirk Hadaway. It also explains why atypical churches, which are prone to innovate, often lead the pack in growth, he adds.
"If it's not uplifting, interesting, provoking ... it's perfectly acceptable in American society to not go [to church] anymore," says Mr. Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church USA. "Churches that are providing a more uplifting worship experience and community are those that are growing. And those that do it well are not typical anymore."
For many congregations, learning to grow is a matter of survival. Six mainline denominations, all of which have been losing members for 40 years, saw worship attendance figures drop by as much as 12 percent between 1999 and 2004, according to a November report from the Presbyterian Church (USA). The United Methodist Church (UMC) lost about 34,000 weekly worshipers, or 1 percent, from 2004 to 2005.
"We have a sense of mission to reach new people with the Gospel and to minister to people's needs - that's why we exist - and we realize that we're failing in our mission," says John Southwick, director of research for the General Board of Global Ministries for the UMC. "We need to turn the ship around, and that means to start growing again."
For stagnant or declining congregations, Hadaway says, the new findings, based on data collected in 2005, offer hope because churches can usually cultivate at least a few attributes correlated with growth. But, church experts caution, this prescription for growth won't work if a congregation doesn't also lay the necessary groundwork.
"What's more, according to Bandy and Hadaway, changing a congregation's attributes often creates stress and conflict, which HIRR found to be the No. 1 factor when attendance takes a dive.
But perhaps the bigger danger in racing to emulate growing churches is losing sight of more primary priorities, according to theologian Philip Kenneson.
(See full article at Christian Science Monitor)
Well, maybe I should have brought that drum set for my son after all. But seriously, how to introduce this to a congregation of older people? How does one turn this ship around? Lots of groundwork. Vision. Empowerment. Encouragement. Willingness. The Holy Spirit.