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Measuring Church Growth

by Carl S. Dudley

Dr. Dudley is professor of church and community at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. This article appeared in the Christian Century  June 6-13, 1979, p. 635. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Objective information on the dynamics of church membership growth -- and lack thereof -- is crucial, especially in a time of decline. Leadership myths and factional claims too often become the language of misunderstanding and the weapons of internal conflict. Well-intentioned denominational programs for membership recruitment have been based on fragmentary evidence, parochial success, and the personal experience of the leadership group. Hard statistical data have been difficult to find. Comparative information on the patterns of growth or decline in different denominations or in different communities has been almost nonexistent.

Recently the Hartford Seminary Foundation, with the support of Lilly Endowment Incorporated, assembled a new base of information derived from mainline denominational experience since the beginning of the Eisenhower era. Over the two-year period 1976-78, a score or more of academic and denominational researchers gathered periodically to share information on the fluctuations in mainline Protestant denominations and the social context in which membership changes occur. The resulting research has been edited by Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen, and published by Pilgrim Press under the title Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 1950-1978. Based on controlled studies of mainline Protestant denominational bodies, the inquiry provides the most comprehensive collection of data gathered in the past half-century.

Unfortunately for those seeking simple answers, the comprehensive quality of the research frustrates any single resolution of the complex problems surrounding the declining membership in mainline denominations. The researchers made no efforts to announce consensus on either the problem examined or the programs recommended. But in their open dialogue, they articulated the issues and compared their data on a common ground. Research cannot determine questions of value and faith, nor can it decide which approach is “the most Christian.” But the information can help decision-makers devise the programs which will work best with certain groups and at what cost.

In developing programs for membership recruitment, for example, numerous styles of evangelism have been attempted, proclaimed, frustrated and often denounced. If we cluster these programs into three basic approaches, the recent data can provide insight into the application of these approaches to mainline church ministries. The first approach advocates clarity of meaning in membership; the disciplined church life; distinctive Christian congregations; and the necessity for evangelical zeal. Dean M. Kelley has put this appeal most forcefully in his watershed book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. A second approach is associated with the missiological studies of gospel “receptivity” among particular peoples, as developed by Donald McGavran and associates in the Institute for American Church Growth. This approach has produced such upbeat books as How Churches Grow, How to Grow a Church, Ten Steps to Church Growth and Your Church Can Grow. A third approach reaffirms the historic emphasis of mainline Protestant denominations on membership appeal through dual responsibilities of care for individual souls and concern for the welfare of the whole society. This public as well as personal function of the mainline churches has often been associated with The Christian Century and the National Council of Churches.

These three approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are sufficiently distinctive to provide a set of questions for which the recent studies suggest interesting new insights.

The Marks of a True Church

Dean Kelley published his powerful but winsome presentation in 1972, when denominational losses were undeniable and comprehensive explanations were unavailable. In the past several years, no approach has received so much attention or contributed so much to an understanding of the church. Kelley’s charts and statistics compared growing and declining churches, with a devastating judgment on mainline denominations. He argued that mainline Protestant churches were declining because they were too weak to adhere to the marks of a true church. These marks might be summarized as (1) institutional strictness, (2) religious distinctiveness, (3) theological conservatism and (4) evangelical zeal. Using as examples religious groups which were growing, Kelley urged commitment to the marks of the church -- a move which he said would result in stronger churches.

The clarity of language which makes Dean Kelley so appealing also makes his approach measurable for testing in congregations and denominational programs. At many levels, researchers looked for his marks and measured the correlations between the Kelley thesis and congregations which were growing or declining. In studies of mainline Protestant congregations, in which the researchers controlled for socioeconomic factors and demographic changes, the marks were no more likely to be found in growing congregations than in declining ones. By contrast, the social contextual factors (socioeconomic data and demographic changes) determined between 50 and 90 per cent of the growth or decline of local church membership. What is happening in the church is not as important as what is happening around the church. As a comprehensive solution to the problems of membership growth and decline, the Kelley thesis is inadequate.

However, Kelley’s approach is significant in two dimensions: it is highly effective in particular kinds of communities, and it is very appealing to an identifiable segment of the population.

In older areas of larger cities and in nongrowing suburban communities, growing congregations exhibited the characteristics Kelley predicted: higher demands on their members, separateness from their community, a faith they defined as “conservative,” and a willingness on the part of members to recruit others for the church. Kelley’s “marks of the church” seem obvious. But in content, these characteristics were significantly different from what he had anticipated: (1) growing congregations made more demands on their members, but they often perceived themselves as extended families; (2) they were separate from the community, but community groups were significantly more likely to be using church facilities; (3) they defined their faith as “conservative,” but they were far more likely than declining congregations to be active in the community seeking to organize for people in need; (4) they recruited church members, but typically, membership recruitment was not well organized or thought to be of the highest priority. The commitments of such congregations were as deep as Kelley had suggested, but much broader than he had anticipated.

Dean Kelley’s principles were vividly exemplified by persons who already felt alienated from society -- economically, politically, psychologically or spiritually. Persons with such feelings of deprivation seemed to express their faith in more exacting language, through more structured and disciplined communities and more in personal piety than through social causes.

Kelley’s thesis was not universally applicable; for example, his marks of the church were noticeably absent from growing congregations in rural areas and medium-sized towns, and from ethnic congregations and churches in growing suburbs. However, the disciplines of faith (conservative with a broad social conscience) were apparently a factor in the growth of congregations in nongrowing communities.

Baptizing a Principle

Research by the Institute for American Church Growth is primarily concerned with the factors which contribute to gospel receptivity among particular populations. Faced with the same data which suggest that the social context will determine the relative limits of church growth (50 to 90 per cent), leaders of the church growth movement have proclaimed that the church is not helpless: we can choose the context in which growth has the best chance to occur. Churches are encouraged to target their mission to the kinds of people who can hear them best. Rather than argue against the contextual analysis of membership growth, the Institute for American Church Growth has made an ally of the facts.

In Your Church Can Grow, C. Peter Wagner has succinctly stated the basic principles of church growth. These might be summarized as follows: (1) commitment -- the church (especially the pastor) must want to grow; (2) identify our people -- members must look for others who are similar to themselves in values, culture, heritage and religious expectation (called the “homogeneous unit”); (3) receptivity -- the church must look for those persons within the homogeneous unit who are most receptive and then must be ready to receive them; (4) priority -- the church must be willing to eliminate unproductive elements from its own programs, and to abandon unproductive segments of the larger population.

Data on growing congregations in growing suburban communities provide a prototype which exemplifies the principles enunciated by Wagner: (1) the congregation and the pastor are committed to growth; (2) the community has already been prescreened to provide a homogeneous unit of people who have mutual interests, share the same culture, socialize freely and feel at home with one another; (3) the resources of the congregations are often “big enough” to absorb new people easily into various activities; (4) with a priority being institutional growth, suburban congregations typically resist ecumenical alliances (labeled “hypercooperation” in church growth literature). In growing suburbs, Wagner’s principles are statistically correlated with growing mainline congregations.

Identification of the homogeneous unit is a distinctive feature of research conducted by the Institute for American Church Growth. Congregational homogeneity of one sort or another was found to be the case in mainline Protestant denominational life, almost without exception. Even those congregations which appear to be racially diversified usually display a unifying core of ethnic background, middle-class values or theological viewpoint. Although if Institute for American Church Growth did not invent the concept of the homogeneous unit, it has been the first to “baptize” the principle as a basis for more effective propagation of the gospel.

Church growth principles can also be used identify communities in which membership growth will be difficult if not impossible. Based on the homogeneous-unit principle, church growth research can determine which communities are too diversified for effective membership potential. Such diversity is defined by Peter Wagner as “disease” from the perspective of homogeneity -- for example “ethnikitus” (cultural diversity) in changing urban communities, “old age” (loss of young residents) depopulated rural areas, and “lift” (socioeconomic mobility) in the affluent suburbs. Where such “pathology” exists, church growth specialists (and social scientists generally) do not anticipate growth in mainline church membership.

In one regard the principles of the church growth movement appear to be misleading as applied to mainline Protestant denominations. Peter Wagner typically begins with the commitment of the pastor and the congregation to the purposes of church growth (often stated in terms of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20). This sense of overriding urgency has encouraged some congregations to sacrifice other tasks for the singular cause of institutional membership growth. However, in mainline Protestant groups, there is no significant relationship between membership commitment and growth, except in new and expanding suburbs. For mainline churches, membership increases occur without a concentrated, organized effort per se. Nor is growth primarily dependent on the commitment of the pastor alone. Growing congregations are characterized by four elements: strong worship, diversified programs, effective pastor and enthusiastic members. Although those four elements carry a different content in different communities and traditions, in general it can be said that growing congregations have a favorable location, generate a higher level of activity, and feel better about what they are doing than do congregations not experiencing expansion. In light of this research, single-minded concentration on membership growth appears counterproductive.

We might note in passing that the Southern Baptist Convention has been uniquely blessed with features that are an expression of both the Kelley thesis and the Wagner principles. From their church history these Baptists have inherited a separatist, sectarian theological tradition which makes them comfortable with Kelley’s marks of the church. At the same time they exist in a social context which provides a stable cultural base for sharing the gospel as advocated by church growth principles; in the south, church attendance is significantly higher than in other areas, and churches draw members from that segment of the population whose citizens have larger families and tend to remain in the communities of their birth. SBC faith and structure match the people they so effectively serve.

Increased Pressures

The mainline denominations which have suffered the greatest membership losses also share a common heritage. The Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Dutch and German Reformed, Lutherans, Congregationalists and English-speaking Methodists have all enjoyed prestigious positions in earlier cultures. For them, mainline theology historically has meant caring both for individuals and for the culture as a whole. They are the denominations which have provided the strength for the National Council of Churches. Such ecumenical councils are an expression of a common concern for what Martin Marty has called “public Protestantism,” because they include the social order and public welfare as appropriate dimensions of Christian ministry. These mainline denominations can be distinguished from more sectarian groups which are characterized by what Marty has called “private Protestantism,” with its emphasis on personal religion.

In recent years, declining membership has increased the pressures within mainline denominations to withdraw from the public arena, and to limit the activities of the ecumenical councils which make visible the social witness of the churches. The Kelley thesis appears to stress the priority of personal piety and doctrinal purity of the church. This form of theological sectarianism has been used to justify the withdrawal of church support from the social ministries of public Protestantism. In a similar way, the homogeneous-unit principle of the church growth movement has emphasized a cultural sectarianism. This principle has been used to justify increased racial and economic segregation, as evidenced in denominational priorities for new-church development in ethnic enclaves and monochromatic suburban communities. Social involvement and congregational diversity have been identified by church leaders as major causes of declining church membership, and theological and cultural sectarianism have been offered as viable alternatives for renewal. In short, public Protestantism has taken the rap for membership decline.

In the face of this rhetoric, the recent studies of membership patterns offer four areas of insight into the behavior of mainline church members. First, “conservatism” in mainline denominations is apparently different from the “private Protestantism” of sectarian churches. Conservatives generally emphasize biblical truth, saving experience and personal faith. In mainline churches they also are concerned to save the traditions and places of their inheritance. These conservatives care about the people whom they have left behind in changing cities and declining rural areas -- but mainline churches have paid the price for such caring. They suffer from the “pathologies” of urban “ethnikitus,” rural “old age” and too much suburban “lift.” The growth statistics of mainline denominations would improve if they would move away from the past and instead place a singular priority on the future. However, the policy of abandoning congregations simply because they are “unproductive” has been considered theologically untenable and pastorally unthinkable. In this case the church leaders are too “conservative.”

Second, “conservatism” in mainline churches also includes a pastoral concern for the whole community. Growing mainline congregations are significantly more involved in community activities, and community groups are significantly more likely to be using church facilities. Further, the members of growing mainline churches indicate that they derive more satisfaction from churches which include a strong social ministry. Such congregations are distinctively Christian, but they are not withdrawn from the life of the community. Sectarian approaches which place priorities on the separation of the church, or on church membership growth per se, are not statistically significant in the growth of main-line churches. For example, the sectarian patterns which may be effective overseas or with the Jehovah’s Witnesses are apparently inappropriate when transplanted into the denominational programs of the United Church of Christ.

Failure to Attract Young People

Third, mainline Protestant churches are not losing members to the “competitive appeal” of conservative, evangelical or more rigorous religious groups. There is no membership migration from what Kelley has called the “weaker” to the “stronger” churches. Episcopalians and Presbyterians are not becoming Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists. The losses of mainline churches and the gains of other religious groups are two distinctively different phenomena which are occurring at the same time. These shifts involve different segments of the population, and reflect independent value changes among different groups of people. In a literal sense, the source of membership decline is not in the number of people who have dropped out of churches, but in the decreasing number of people who have joined. These churches have simply failed to attract new, younger members to take the place of those who have departed by natural attrition. The declining mainline churches have failed to maintain the family cycle.

Fourth, the youth from the families of mainline Protestant churches are not abandoning the faith. In fact, the theological beliefs of the American public seem to have remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the Eisenhower era. Neither have young people shifted their loyalties from those of “old liberals” to those of the “new evangelicals” (on balance the flow seems slightly in the other direction). Rather, mainline church membership losses reflect a widespread shift in values which is especially pronounced among more educated, mobile young adult -- the children of mainline church families. Included in this values shift is a massive resistance to organizations, institutions and voluntary associations, including (but not limited to) the church. Thus, these “lost members” are not flocking to banners held out by other forms of institutionalized religion. They are mobile, experimental and experiential -- the free spirits in our society. They are people who believe without belonging.

Examining Roots

Mainline churches will not “win back” lost members by imitating the successful programs by which other groups secure the loyalties of other populations. Our problems are more complex and challenging. We cannot discover our ministry by mimicking the styles of others; we must look again at the roots of our confessional commitments.

When we lift our heads high enough to see beyond the embarrassing statistics of the present situation, we may discover that we have numerous biblical and historical models for creative Christian minorities in an essentially secular world, We can admit our minority status without assuming a sectarian posture. We can discover from current research many of the factors which contributed to the decline in mainline church membership. We can learn that church leadership and programs were not the precipitating causes: we are simply not that important when compared to much larger cultural forces. We can learn much about the people who would once have joined mainline churches -- where they are, what they believe, and how they can be reached. Finally, we can give up the myth of a righteous monopoly -- the idea that all religious people will join churches, and that churches should be interested only in religion. In short, we can regain our modesty.

Mainline Protestant churches appear to be uniquely prepared to work with those who believe without belonging. With them we apparently share many values of the past as well as hopes for the future. We may not get them “back” into the churches, but we can join with them to do the Lord’s work on earth. And we may rediscover the Christian church in the process.


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