Bryan Burroughs hadn’t darkened a church door in years when his work first brought him to McKendree United Methodist Church to help the congregation refinance its building.
How the increase was Determined
The report on vitality uses data churches submitted to the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denominational agency that tracks church statistics. The 2010 percentage uses data from 32,228 U.S. churches, and the 2012 percentage uses data from 32,947 churches. The slight increase owes to more complete reporting from churches.
The complete list of highly vital congregations is confidential. Bishops can request and receive the lists for their episcopal area.
In the report, Bishop John R. Schol acknowledged that some people might attribute the upturn to churches over-counting.
But the bishop noted that the increase also coincided with an increase in money sent to the general church and annual (regional) conferences.
Scott Brewer, an executive with the General Council on Finance and Administration, agrees the data are reliable.
“These numbers are never perfect, but we do crosscheck data when trends fall outside of our normal expectations,” Brewer said. “When we saw the percentage of smaller and medium-sized churches growing in attendance jump in 2012, we checked those increases against changes in giving. There was a statistically significant relationship between the two.”
United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in the United States also reported an increase in total professions of faith in 2012, for the first time in 11 years. Professions of faith include youth completing confirmation and adult new church members who make a profession to follow Christ. The number does not count people who transfer from one church to another.
Like Schol, Brewer finds the news of increased vital congregations encouraging.
“I believe the results of the (vitality) index give us a reason to thank God for our progress in 2012. At the same time, we always have room to grow in our discipleship,” Brewer said. “I hope that we take this opportunity to celebrate what we’ve accomplished through God’s grace and then ask, ‘God, what’s next?’”
He found a warm welcome from the pastors and visited again, this time with his wife and two young daughters. The family has been worshipping at McKendree ever since. On Easter 2012, both he and his wife, Andrea Flores, joined the church by profession of faith, proclaiming their commitment to follow Christ. They are more than pew-sitters. Flores helps with the church youth group, and Burroughs has taught financial classes at the church.
“The Holy Spirit led us here,” Burroughs said. “This was the family we were missing. There was a void in my life, and this filled that void and made me complete.”
Burrough’s story is more common than some might think. Even amid frequent news articles about the decline of religious affiliation in the United States, people are still joining United Methodist churches.
That growth is reflected in a report this year that found the percentage of “highly vital” United Methodist churches in the U.S. more than doubled between 2010 and 2012 — from 14.8 percent to 33.9 percent. The same report said 34 percent of U.S. United Methodist churches grew in worship attendance in 2012.
The denomination measures a congregation’s vitality based on four major areas of church life: growth, member involvement in the congregation, engagement in the community, and giving.
To be considered “highly vital,” a congregation must be in the top 25 percent of all U.S. congregations in two of the four major areas and cannot be in the bottom 25 percent in any one of the areas. A group of clergy, laity, bishops and agency heads developed this formula working with the consulting firm Towers Watson.
“The doubling of highly vital congregations means that there are more disciples working on justice and mercy ministries, we are making more new disciples, more disciples(are) inviting new people, more disciples are engaging in learning small groups, and more disciples are giving generously to mission,” said New Jersey Area Bishop John R. Schol, a leader of the denomination’s Vital Congregations Initiative, in the report to the Council of Bishops.
The surge in vital congregations is not enough to reverse the decades-long overall trend of declining U.S. church membership and worship attendance. Schol is quick to point out United Methodists must do more, but the improvements do offer reasons for hope.
“As we continue to increase the vitality of our congregations, we will experience a stronger missional church that is making disciples and transforming the world,” Schol told the United Methodist News Service.
So how do churches increase vitality? Churches that are highly vital offer examples others might emulate.
McKendree United Methodist Church
McKendree United Methodist Church, established in what is now downtown Nashville in 1787 — before Tennessee was a state — is one such congregation. The church has undergone a number of changes over the centuries, but it is still serving its community and growing.
Factors calculated in Vitality
A) Five-year change in average worship attendance, divided by five-year average of worship attendance.
B) Five-year change in person received by profession of faith and faith restored, divided by five-year average professions and faith restored.
A) Number of people (all ages) in small groups, Bible study and Sunday school as a percent of worship attendance.
B) Number of young adults in Christian formation activities as a percentage of worship attendance.
C) Average worship attendance as a percentage of professing membership.
Engagement in the Community
A) Number of people engaged in mission as a percent of worship attendance.
B) Number of professions of faith and faith restored (who are not confirmands) as a percent of worship attendance.
A) Apportionment percentage paid for most current year.
B) Five-year change in mission giving per attendee, divided by five-year average of mission giving per attendee.
C) Five-year change in giving (defined as total non-capital local church spending) per attendee, divided by five-year average of non-capital spending per attendee.
Source: General Council on Finance and Administration
Between 2008 and 2012, the church saw its average weekly worship attendance grow from 175 to 360. The church also has the distinction of being both ethnically and economically diverse. On a typical Sunday, bankers pray alongside struggling artists, and young families in blue jeans worship next to retirees in suits.
That diversity is one reason why Katie and Adam Therrien wanted to be part of the congregation.
After moving to Nashville from Massachusetts, the Therriens were searching for a new church home. The couple wasn’t particularly attached to any denomination, having previously attended Catholic and Congregationalist churches. Adam Therrien said he and his wife “were church nomads” until they discovered McKendree’s website about a year and a half ago.
“We walked in the doors, and we knew instantly this was the church where we needed to be because it was so vibrant and there were so many different kinds of people here,” Katie Therrien said. “I think that reflects the world and what Jesus calls us to be.”
Today, she is involved in a variety of ministries, including a women’s Bible study, and her husband plays bass guitar in the church’s contemporary worship band.
The Rev. Stephen Handy, the church’s pastor for the past six years, suggests church vitality begins with prayer. He said McKendree’s leaders pray twice daily at 10:02 a.m. and 10:02 p.m., using Jesus’ words in Luke 10:2 — “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
He has advice for churches seeking to be more vibrant. “Pray for revival, wait expectedly for God’s next move, create a culture of pastoral and congregational excellence, build a discipling system, equip the laity to be bold and courageous disciples of Christ and then unleash them for ministry,” he said. “Then set up a system to continuously invest in improvements.”
Ontario United Methodist Church
More than 400 miles away from McKendree is another example of a highly vital congregation, Ontario United Methodist Church in north central Ohio. Between 2008 and 2012, the church saw its average weekly attendance grow from 173 to 180.
It’s a church, members say, where visitors do not go away hungry, either spiritually or physically. Every Sunday, the church provides a free breakfast — complete with omelets made to order — called Grace and Eggs. In this case, Grace stands for God, Relationships, Accept, Care and Evangelize.
That’s not the congregation’s only nourishing ministry. The church offers a fellowship meal between two Bible studies every Tuesday, meals twice a month for senior citizens, monthly meals for retired pastors and weekly meals for the local swim and football teams in season.
Recently, the church also started a ministry called “P B and J” that provides meals for low-income children and families during the summer. In addition, the church has a community garden that provides fresh produce for various local food ministries.
“Food is important to building relationships in this church,” says the Rev. Peggy L. Welch, who has been Ontario’s pastor for a year. “Folks sit down for coffee and cookies after church to visit with the ones they didn't catch at breakfast.”
Melinda Shaum said the church’s warmth and friendliness is part of what led her and her husband to join the congregation nearly three years ago. She also likes that, in this church, it’s not the same group of lay people who do everything.
After taking an online class through United Methodist Communications, Shaum “freshened up” and now manages the church’s website and Facebook page. She teaches a weekly class to help people with their computers and mobile devices and is developing an app for the church.
“Almost everyone is involved in something,” she said. “We are a community! Every class, Bible study, leadership retreat has been warm, open minded, welcoming of new ideas.”
Drivers of vitality
Both McKendree and Ontario United Methodist churches share traits that United Methodist leaders through research in 2010 identified as drivers of vitality. These include small groups, effective pastors who mentor lay people, a broad rotation of lay leaders and varied styles of worship.
McKendree, for example, has a contemporary worship service at 9 a.m. and a traditional worship service at 11 a.m. Ontario has a single worship service at 10:15 a.m. that blends more contemporary praise songs with traditional hymns.
Schol said he believes U.S. worship attendance will grow as more congregations embrace the drivers of vitality and conferences plant more new churches.
Welch said she knows a congregation is vital when people come to church not because they are duty-bound but because they are Spirit-led.
“If there isn’t joy in the heart when a person walks in the door, it soon will be after the hugs and greetings,” she said. “My very first Sunday, five different people brought a visitor up to meet me. The people of this church don't have to be trained to be hospitable because they think of this as their home, and themselves as hosts and hostesses.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications digital assets manager, contributed to this report. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]..