Survey: In most areas, smaller congregations every bit as vital as larger ones

LOUISVILLE (PNS) — In general, smaller- and medium-sized congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), together with their counterparts in the Episcopal Church, assigned themselves higher scores as part of a vital congregations survey than larger congregations.

Dr. Angie Andriot, a research analyst with Research Services, shares a laugh during her brown bag presentation Monday on the results of the U.S. Congregational Vitality Study. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

On Monday during a brown bag lunch at the Presbyterian Center, Dr. Angie Andriot, a research analyst with the PC(USA)’s Research Services, shared results from the U.S. Congregational Vitality Study. The focus was on how the size of the congregation correlates with its performance in the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality: lifelong discipleship; intentional, authentic evangelism; outward incarnational focus; servant leadership; Spirit-inspired worship; caring relationships; and ecclesial health.

The survey included 156 churches — 78 from each denomination. Nearly 9,000 members participated, as well as pastors and priests. Those surveyed assigned themselves an overall vitality score of 76, which would equate to a grade of C+.

Of the seven marks, caring relationships (“This church loves and cares for all its members”) scored the highest, 81 percent — a grade of B or B-. The next highest were worship (“This church leads inspiring worship”) and ecclesial health (“This church stays healthy and strong” and “This church fulfills its mission”), both at 79.

They were followed by servant leadership (“This church helps members find the best way they can contribute to the life of the church”) at 78 percent, discipleship (“This church prioritizes faith formation and disciple-making) and outward focus (“This church responds to the needs of people outside the church”), both at 74 percent.

Participating churches scored themselves lowest on evangelism (“This church engages in evangelism”), with a score of 69. That score enters the D+ range.

Andriot said there wasn’t much difference between answers supplied by Presbyterian and Episcopal respondents, save for two.

“We think we are better at outward focus,” she said. “They think they are better at worship.”

The median church in the PC(USA) — meaning half are above, and half are below — has 72 members and 48 in attendance. The average church has 148 members and 79 in attendance.

Congregations in those smaller- and medium-sized church categories who participated in the survey rated themselves higher in most of the seven marks than members and clergy in larger participating churches. In evangelism, for example, average-sized congregations reported the highest score. In discipleship, the median-sized churches scored the highest. The very best churches for loving and caring for all their members were the very smallest — those with 1-25 members.

In the servant leadership category, the top scorers were churches with between 251-500 members. And for ecclesial health, churches with 500 members or more were among the top performers.

For each of the seven marks, respondents were asked questions specific to measuring how effectively their congregation was meeting the mark. Andriot’s presentation scored responses to each mark.

In discipleship, for example, the top scorers were “challenges me to become more Christ-like” and “helps me apply my faith to everyday life.” The lowest was “I know the Bible well.”

For evangelism, “I try to ensure that visitors to my church feel welcome” finished at the top. The lowest was “I invite people who do not attend church to come visit mine.”

For outward focus, the top two responses were “responds to the needs of the people in the local community and beyond” and “fosters environments of diversity.” “Provides a moral voice for our community” finished last of 11 responses.

For the servant leadership mark, “provides me with opportunities to get involved” was the top finisher. In last place was “I am heavily involved in this church beyond attending worship.”

In the worship category, respondents placed “helps me understand Scripture” and “leads inspiring worship” at the top. “Challenges my assumptions and convictions” and “connectedness” were at the bottom of the list.

Not surprisingly, “love and care for all its members” topped the caring relationships mark. At the bottom of the list was this response: “I have at least one close friend in this congregation.”

Finally, for the ecclesial health mark, “there is no tension between leadership and members” and “has a healthy sense of mission or purpose” received top marks. At the bottom of the list of nine responses: “Our congregation manages conflict well.”

This study represents “the first deep analysis” of congregational vitality data, Andriot said. She said she plans to next delve into giving and how it correlates with vital congregations.

by Mike Ferguson, Presbyterian News Service