Thoughts: Congregational Age and Impact on Vitality

Earlier this month on our blog, ELCA researcher Linda Bobbitt wrote a thoughtful summary of two articles investigating the effects of a congregation’s age on its vitality. The articles suggested that congregational age (the year a church was founded) doesn’t really have a large impact on the church’s vitality (at least as measured by membership / worship attendance or finances, to a certain degree). Rather, other contextual factors such as an ability to change and adapt to the surrounding environment, amount of resources gathered and incorporation of healthy practices in the first few years of the congregation, and an ability to move the congregation beyond the needs and patterns of the founding generation all have a greater impact on whether a congregation will remain vital.

Marge Royle, one of our bloggers and a UCC research expert, did a rough analysis that investigated the relationship between congregational age and church growth rates on our own UCC churches. She discovered that new churches were growing faster than other congregations, as would be expected; but she also found that some of the UCC’s oldest churches founded in the 1600’s and 1700’s were growing a bit faster as well, which she thought to be a function of some growth in New England churches in particular. In general, however, the age of the congregation did not have a large impact overall on growth–there was simply a small or moderate effect.

It is interesting to note that the growth curve she discovered was similar to some recent analysis conducted by Richard Gorsuch (2014) on mainline Protestant congregations using Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey data (the similarity was particularly true for newer churches). But, like Royle, he found little overall effect in terms of church age and growth in average worship attendance from 2000 to 2010, as seen in the graph below.

Courtesy of Richard Gorsuch (2014)

In essence, all of this proves that our implicit understanding of a “natural life cycle” for congregations is unfounded. Many denominations and congregations have bought into the notion that the life and death of churches functions in the same manner as the human life and death cycle–the older we get, the closer we are to dying. And while it is true that churches continue to be born and die, they have little to do with the age of the congregation and instead hinge more heavily on other factors like the ones mentioned above.

The Center for Progressive Renewal offers some excellent tools and models to talk about cycles of existence in ways that focus on these other factors rather than on congregational age. The phrase that most vividly expresses this non-relationship was quoted by Linda Bobbitt in her summary and originates from Hannan (1998): “Aging per se does not affect the hazard of mortality; instead, age tracks the fit between an organization and its environment” (p. 158).

Age is just a number, as the saying goes. It can track a church over time, but the vitality of that church is dependent upon so much more than the date the congregation was founded.

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