How Do Congregations Grow

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Rev. Cameron Trimble, CEO of Convergence

Convergence (formerly the Center for Progressive Renewal) was founded to support the start and renewal of congregations. Today, we talk about that work as helping congregations move from “organized to organizing religion,” where the measure of success is reflected in the vitality and impact of our collective mission to create a more just and generous world.

We believe congregations matter. We invest our consulting, assessment, coaching and training efforts in congregations that see themselves as “schools of love” where people learn to be more compassionate, spiritually mature and socially responsible through their involvement. To that end, we want to see congregations grow numerically, spiritually, and theologically. How we do that in this age requires a new kind of creativity in leadership and a certain courage in resilience. It also requires strategy. That’s why I particularly appreciate the work of Ryan Burge. 

In a recent analysis of the fastest-growing congregations in the United States, researcher Ryan Burge has uncovered some fascinating demographic trends that reveal key factors contributing to congregational growth. Utilizing data from Outreach’s annual lists from 2015 through 2022, Burge explored how various demographic characteristics correlate with the growth rates of these congregations. His findings offer valuable insights for congregational leaders and planners aiming to foster growth in their congregations.

One of the most notable patterns emerging from Burge’s research is the geographic concentration of growing congregations. The data clearly shows a significant number of these congregations are located in the South, particularly in regions like the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Atlanta. However, the Midwest also stands out, with states like Indiana and Ohio hosting many rapidly growing congregations despite broader population and economic challenges in these areas.

Burge’s analysis further delves into the demographic characteristics of the counties where these congregations are located. Population growth is a critical factor. While 54% of all U.S. counties experienced a population decline between 2010 and 2020, only 7% of counties with fast-growing congregations saw a decline. In fact, a significant majority of these congregations are situated in counties with substantial population increases, highlighting the importance of being in a dynamic and growing community.

Mobility also plays a crucial role in congregational growth. Burge found that counties with higher rates of new residents tend to have more rapidly growing congregations. Specifically, nearly 30% of counties with fast-growing congregations had a mobility rate of at least 5%, compared to just 18% of all U.S. counties. This suggests that new residents, who are less likely to be tied to existing congregations, are more open to joining new congregations, providing fertile ground for growth.

Educational attainment is another significant predictor of growing congregations. Fast-growing congregations are predominantly found in counties with higher levels of education. Burge’s data shows that nearly three-quarters of the fastest-growing congregations are located in counties where at least 30% of the adult population holds a college degree. This is a stark contrast to the nationwide average, where only 20% of counties have such high educational levels.

Population density is equally crucial. Burge’s findings indicate that fast-growing congregations are seldom found in low-density areas. Instead, they thrive in counties with moderate to high population densities. For instance, 82% of the fastest-growing congregations are in counties with at least 100 people per square mile, which is a much higher proportion than the national average. This underscores the advantage of being in areas with a sufficient population base to support congregational activities and outreach.

Based on these findings, Burge has outlined a formula for identifying counties likely to support fast-growing congregations. The ideal county for congregational growth would have experienced at least 10% population growth between 2010 and 2020, have a mobility rate between 2.5% and 5%, have at least 30% of adults with a college degree, and a population density of at least 500 people per square mile. 

According to Burge’s analysis, only 47 counties in the U.S. meet all these criteria, highlighting the specific yet critical conditions necessary for rapid congregational growth.

Following this data-driven approach could be a key to success for those interested in planting or expanding congregations. At Convergence, we are committed to fostering environments where congregations can thrive and fulfill their mission. We believe that with the right strategies and support, congregations can grow in ways that profoundly influence individuals and communities, nurturing a society that is more compassionate and just. Call on us if we can help your congregation. 

To read more about this research, click here.

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