Are Newer Congregations More Vital?

Last month, we published the Fall 2013 UCC Statistical Profile, which offers a general overview of the state of the denomination through congregational, ministerial, and financial perspectives. This was the first report of its kind to be published in a decade!

When analyzing data on UCC congregations, we discovered some interesting differences between newer and older congregations. Congregations organized from 2000 to 2012 experienced growth in the last five year period (2007-2012) at an average of 6 new members per congregation. Churches organized in any time period prior to 2000 experienced a net decline in membership within the same five-year period, at a total average rate of 20 members per congregation.

In addition, congregations organized starting in 1940 voted to become Open and Affirming more frequently (34.2% of total churches) than congregations organized before 1940 (18.2% of total churches). While this may not directly point to numerical growth, it does point to newer churches’ willingness to adapt to cultural change.

What does this tell us about newer churches? Is there something more vital about newer congregations than older congregations? Are they more open to change? Much research has been conducted on congregational vitality (what makes a congregation a healthy and growing entity); and characteristics of vital churches have been identified, one of which is that they were organized more recently than non-vital churches.

We also know from the latest Faith Communities Today (FACT) Study that congregations with significant numbers of young adults tend to be newer congregations; so if the presence of younger generations is any indication of vitality and growth (and I suspect there is some correlation), this is another trend to pay attention to.

Overall, what do these statistics say to the United Church of Christ, a denomination where nearly 7 in 10 congregations were organized before 1900?

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As a minister, I resist the hypothesis that older necessarily means being less vital. These congregations have the same potential for life–sustaining, renewing, and thriving life–as newer churches. We cannot forget a major factor for these differences is that the culture surrounding mainline Protestantism in the U.S. has dramatically shifted in the last 100 years. (One of the best, most reader-friendly descriptions of these changes is in Doug Pagitt’s Church in the Inventive Age.) Demographically, politically, racially, socioeconomically, technologically, and even biologically, we are different. Older churches trying to strike a balance between maintaining tradition and adapting to these changes inherently have a more difficult time doing this than newer churches. This does not mean that they cannot be vital, healthy, growing places.

I am reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah; for even though they were older, they bore new life. Genesis 17:17-19 (NRSV) reads, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’ God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”

Can older congregations bear such new life? We may have the same reaction Abraham did when God proposed something that seemed preposterous; and while it may be nearly impossible, there are still possibilities. With God, nothing is impossible. But it does prompt us to consider giving greater resources and energy to that which may have an increased potential for vitality, namely, new congregations.

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