Churches with rising attendance numbers have a lot in common with one another – a lot more than denomination, location, or even theological approach.
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.
"You cannot simply introduce tactics in worship design and hope to increase the number of males or become more cross-cultural," says Thomas Bandy, president of Easum, Bandy & Associates, a Texas-based church-growth consultancy. "It requires a certain kind of leader" to build consensus and trustworthy spiritual authority, or else other changes in congregational life become mere superficialities.
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.
"I don't think there are any bonuses just for getting people in the door," says Mr. Kenneson, an associate professor at Milligan College in Tennessee and co-author of "Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing." "I want my children to be formed by a community of believers [that shape] a certain kind of people. It's not enough to just be there being counted."
Still, atypical congregations of many stripes are counting their blessings as new worshipers beef up the flock's ranks. On the liberal side, gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto recently hosted the largest Christmas Eve service in Canada with nearly 2,500 attendees. With more than 30 ethnic groups represented in the pews, the congregation expects to keep building its average weekly attendance from 580 today to about 875 within the next three years.
More-conservative congregations are also benefiting from ethnic diversity and joyful environs. Granger Community Church, a drum-loving congregation near South Bend, Ind., has seen weekly attendance grow from about 2,000 in 2000 to 5,700 in 2006. First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Md., has boosted average weekly attendance over the past four years from 190 to about 225, an 18 percent gain. Bringing minority faces up front to lead songs and prayer has helped make the church 50 percent nonwhite, according to Larry White, minister of spiritual formation. Another plus: Professional musicians, including a drummer, have helped increase the ranks of young adults.
"The universal language of rock 'n' roll sets the stage for people of many different backgrounds to be comfortable in our setting," Mr. White says. Although electric guitars have turned off some older members, White says, most have been willing to tolerate it as an important drawing card for younger newcomers.
In some cases, old-fashioned pastoral care still wins attendees. When newcomers visit Assembly of God Brazilian Church, a growing Pentecostal congregation in Abington, Mass., lay evangelist Fausto de Rocha follows up with a home visit. There, he prays with them. If they don't speak English, he makes calls to set up phone and cable television service. The church also offers language classes and helps newcomers find jobs.
"These are immigrants far away from their home and the love they knew there," Mr. de Rocha says. But they tend to relax, he says, around top- notch singers, horns, and drums at Sunday services.