NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It's the conundrum Protestant denominations with declining memberships and shrinking budgets are desperate to solve: How to stem the decades-long losses and attract new worshippers.
The United Methodist Church, the third largest denomination in the country, thinks it could be closer to finding the answer. It commissioned an ambitious survey of nearly all its 33,000 U.S. churches to find out what its growing memberships are doing to keep congregations thriving.
Of those churches, the four key factors of vitality stood out as "crystal clear findings that are actionable," according to the survey:
— Small groups and programs, such as Bible study and activities geared toward youth.
— An active lay leadership.
— Inspirational pastors who have served lengthy tenures at churches.
— A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services.
One of the successful churches is St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, which has seen its membership steadily grow over the years to nearly 6,200.
The church's senior pastor, the Rev. Kent Millard, said it has offered both traditional and contemporary worship services for years. At a contemporary service, congregants kick back with doughnuts and coffee, a live band plays music and clips from Hollywood movies are shown to illustrate Gospel messages.
"Worship is like going to a mall," Millard said. "There are all kinds of stores. Some people like specialty shops. Some like department stores. When you have variety, people can go where they like."
Religious scholars say the exhaustive survey is likely the first of its kind to try solving problems that for years have plagued mainline Protestant denominations like the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
The U.S. membership of the United Methodist Church, which has most of its offices and operations in Nashville, dropped by nearly 1 percent last year, to 7.9 million members, according to Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, released by the National Council of Churches.
The Methodists' survey, conducted by consulting firm Towers Watson and sent out to churches in May, found that about 5,500 Methodist churches were considered vital, with high attendance, growth and congregation engagement. The project cost about $200,000.
Churches and pastors were asked survey questions like, "Approximately, what percent of your church's children participate in programs other than worship?" and to rate the "general effectiveness of the lay leadership in motivating and inspiring vitality in the life of the congregation."
"The most important outcome of the research is that there are clearly drivers that are absolutely understandable and actionable," said Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House and co-chair of the steering committee that commissioned the survey.
"This gives us great hope. We believe we can see dramatic, positive results in more congregations over the next few years."
Millard agrees with the importance of longer-serving pastors.
"I have been here 17 years and my predecessor was here 26 years," Millard said. "We've had two very long-term pastors and I think that's part of the reason why the church has thrived."
His church also has a very active lay leadership with a governing board of 12 — composed of attorneys, business owners, teachers and other professionals. And the church recently brought on four new staff members to help develop children and youth ministries. About 1,200 children and youth participate in the church's programs.
"All pastors and bishops have anecdotes and ideas about what makes a vital church," Millard said. "But we've never done a survey of all United Methodist churches like this.
"The exciting thing is any church can do this. They're all possible for any size congregation. Any congregation can become vital if they start to practice these things."
The steering committee met last week in Nashville to determine how to use the survey and what recommendations might be made to the Methodists' Council of Bishops at its semiannual meeting in Panama City, Panama in November.
William B. Lawrence, Dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, said he's not aware of other major denominations doing similar surveys.
"We are a denomination that still has the capacity to look at ourselves and ask some hard questions," he said. "It's an attempt to examine seriously the challenges facing the church today and the opportunities facing the church in the future."
What the Methodists do with the information gathered from the survey will be key, Lawrence said. It's going to require "mobilizing the whole system," lay leadership as well as pastors, to get behind recommendations to turn around churches with sagging memberships and budgets.
On the Web:
The United Methodist Church: http://www.umc.org