As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) prepares to hold its first National 1001 New Worshipping Communities Conference in Florida on Aug. 10-13, a survey of leaders of new worshipping communities in the PC(USA) has found that those leaders characterize their communities as being younger and more racially diverse than the denomination’s membership as a whole and say only about a third attended a PC(USA) congregation before becoming involved in that community.
The survey covers a variety of evangelical initiatives in the PC(USA), including new worshipping communities, immigrant fellowships, new church developments and “other expressions of church” — those that are not fully-organized congregations or recently organized congregations, the report states. The survey draws on responses from 143 leaders gathered from Jan. 12 to Feb. 18, 2015, a response rate of 31 percent.
The results give a glimpse into what’s happening in the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshipping Communities program — an evangelistic outreach that’s generated enthusiasm for innovation among Presbyterians eager to try new approaches to ministry and push past gloom-and-doom reports of falling denominational membership and revenues. “These new worshiping communities have the potential to help the PC(USA) shift from an inward-focused, membership- maintenance model of church to a more outward-focused, creative, and disciple-making model,” the survey report states.
Among the findings:
- More than half of the communities (57 percent) meet outside of traditional church spaces (18 percent in homes, 11 percent in bars or pubs and 9 percent in coffee shops), and 9 percent run a business as part of their mission.
- Nearly half of the communities (48 percent) are located in urban areas; 22 percent in the suburbs; 17 percent in small towns; 7 percent on a college or university campus; and only 2 percent in rural areas.
- More than half of the worship leaders are teaching elders (55 percent), and 24 percent are in their first call. About one in five (19 percent) are ruling elders. Fewer than a third (29 percent) of the leaders are women — compared to the 35 percent of active PC(USA) pastors who are female. Just over half (51 percent) identified themselves as white; 20 percent Hispanic or Latino; 13 percent Asian; 11 percent black or African American.
When it comes to other parts of the survey, however, how accurate the survey’s results are depends in part on how good of a job the leaders did in describing the people involved with their worshipping communities.
In some of the survey questions, the leaders describe themselves (their training and ordination status, for example, or their gender and race). Other questions ask about the worshipping community — such as where it meets and how often. And another set of questions asks the leaders to describe the people involved in their worshipping community — including the age, race and faith background of attendees and the primary language they speak.
The survey states, for example, that 20 percent of the participants had not attended church in the last five years (described as “dechurched”); 17 percent had no previous religious affiliation (“unchurched”); 33 percent attended a church of another denomination; and 7 percent were of a non-Christian faith. It states that 53 percent of the participants are racial-ethnic, compared to only 8 percent of members in the PC(USA).
Asked how those figures were arrived at — since worship leaders were surveyed but participants were not — Angie Andriot and Deb Coe of Presbyterian Research Services said the answers and percentages reflect the worship leaders’ knowledge and perception of their communities. “We’re making the assumption that the person responding to the survey has really gotten to know the people in their organization and they can tell you from their own personal knowledge,” Coe said, adding that most of the worshipping communities are small — fewer than 50 people.
Andriot also said that some measures used in this survey — such as worship leaders reporting the racial makeup of a community — are comparable with what’s done with the annual statistical reports that PC(USA) congregations submit. Many immigrant fellowships draw participants from the same country or region, she said, so it’s relatively easy to tell the primary language and ethnicity.
It’s true, however, that “the information is only as good as the leader’s connection to the group, the members,” Andriot said. Coe and Andriot gave the margin of error of the survey as plus or minus 5 percent.
Part of the reason for doing the survey, Coe and Andriot said, was to get a baseline sense of the worshipping communities that can be compared with results down the road. The intent of the 1001 program is for the PC(USA) to establish 1001 new worshipping communities between 2012 and 2022.
Already, the researchers have seen that “there’s a lot more variation than we maybe anticipated in how they define being a community, what that looks like to them, what’s important to them,” Coe said.
Among other findings of the survey:
» The worshipping communities tended to have younger participants than the typical PC(USA) congregation (according to the ages reported by the worship leaders — not self-reporting of the participants). In the worshipping communities, worship leaders reported that 43 percent of participants were ages 19 to 39; that 27 percent were ages 40 to 64; and only 9 percent were 65 and older.
- Most communities (84 percent) meet at least once a week. The median size of a community is 33 regular participants.
- More than three-quarters (68 percent) of the communities have more than 20 percent racial-ethnic participation. But about a third (34 percent) have no racial diversity.
- Most of the communities (72 percent) have one or more partner congregations.
- While some communities use classic approaches — Bible study and small groups — others spoke of the arts and community building. “We hang out,” the survey quotes one leader as saying. “It’s simple, that’s why it works.”