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Published: Saturday, 11/23/2002

What is driving evangelical growth?

BY JUDY TARJANYI
BLADE SENIOR WRITER

Say “growing church” to the average pastor and a congregation serving cappuccino at the door and contemporary music in the sanctuary likely comes to mind.

But growing churches have a lot more going on than hip music and trendy hospitality, say those who were asked about a recent report by the Glenmary Research Center showing that evangelical congregations are on the upswing in size.

The study shows that from 1990 to 2000, evangelical and charismatic denominations were among the fastest growing nationally, even as mainline Protestant groups declined.

The Assemblies of God, for example, a Pentecostal denomination, increased 18.5 percent nationwide and 63 percent locally over the 10-year period, while the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline body, declined 11.6 percent nationally and 26 percent locally. Not included were 14 historically black denominations, which did not participate in the study.

The Rev. Richard Houseal, a Church of the Nazarene pastor who served as liaison for Glenmary's Religious Congregations and Membership Study, said although the study doesn't say much about who is joining such churches, researchers suspect a lot of the growth is related to location in new neighborhoods and developments.

“It's the evangelical churches that are starting congregations in those neighborhoods rather than the mainline churches.”

Mr. Houseal said worship style and especially preaching quality may be factors too. “Preaching is always the most important thing in any survey that I've seen. ... I think people are looking for spiritual food and things to strengthen their personal spiritual lives. I don't think you can do that without a strong biblical message.”

The Rev. Doug Clay, a general presbyter for the Assemblies of God denomination and pastor of Calvary Assembly of God, a growing church in the Southwyck area, agreed. “Scripture has become an issue. People are saying, `I've got to find a moral absolute.' Some people may see that as really narrow-minded, but we believe the Bible is the rule of faith and conduct ... I'm finding the contemporary Toledo Joe actually buying that.”

For example, Mr. Clay cited a couple who had a nominal religious affiliation before coming to his church, but who enthusiastically embraced his views about the Bible after he led the husband to Christ while the two men were playing golf. “They said no one ever really explained the Bible to them.”

Mr. Clay said getting such people to come to church involves more than a good sermon, however. “It's about connecting them with God,” he said, something evangelical churches tend to do well through worship services that are light on liturgy and heavy on heartfelt response.

Good worship is more than the hymns and songs, Mr. Clay said.

Evangelical churches also may be growing, he said, because they are willing to respond to cultural trends by offering, for example, divorce-recovery workshops, instead of asking people to show up and fit in. They tend too to foster relationships with lay people by involving them in leadership, and, true to their name, are strategic about evangelism, encouraging individual members to reach out to people and planning events designed to bring in newcomers.

The Assemblies of God, for example, have had much of their growth come through outreach to Hispanics and Asians in urban areas. The fastest-growing segment of the denomination, Mr. Clay said, is in what are called “language districts” in inner-city neighborhoods.

This also proves that location is not necessarily a determining factor in whether a church is in growth or decline.

In northwestern Ohio, for instance, some urban congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are experiencing growth even as the mainline denomination's overall numbers have decreased 2.2 percent nationally and 8 percent locally.

The Rev. Marc Miller, assistant to the bishop of the ELCA's Northwestern Ohio Synod, said good pastoral leadership is at work in such situations. “You may have a Lutheran pastor with a strongly spiritual heart and perhaps an evangelical style speaking dramatically about a love relationship in Christ. When people's faith is highly energized, the congregation springs to life.”

Mr. Miller said some growing congregations, such as Memorial in West Toledo and St. Mark in East Toledo, employ contemporary worship, but he said that is not always the case with other growing congregations, such as Holy Trinity and St. Lucas in South Toledo.

More important, he said, are vision and mission. “If you look at all the [growing] congregations, you see vision for where the congregation's going, vision for what God is doing in the future, not the past, and a sense of mission in that those congregations are extremely intentional about being in the neighborhood and making new contacts.”

Mr. Miller said at one time, the ELCA stood silent while congregations in changing neighborhoods closed and moved to the suburbs when their numbers declined, but he said now such churches are encouraged to stay put.

“Praise God for new churches building on the periphery and serving the new growth, but we consider it a major part of our calling to stay in these neighborhoods. One of our slogans is `in the city for good.'”

Dr. Cynthia Woolever, principal investigator of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, which tracks information about who is attending services based on responses from more than 2,000 congregations, said she would hate to see mainline congregations try to copy what successful evangelical churches are doing. “Because I don't think that really speaks to who they are.

“I do think people kind of look for the magic, silver bullet - if we do this one thing everything will turn out well. We do have to struggle with what it means to be the church today and it's a difficult question.”

The Rev. Riley B. Case, a retired United Methodist minister in Indiana, said recently for United Methodist News Service that he thinks his denomination has begun to reverse a decline in worship attendance through a multipronged approach that includes renewing the focus on evangelism, encouraging Bible study and renewal programs, moving to a new doctrinal statement that stresses the “primacy of Scripture,” trying new music and worship styles, and taking a biblical stand on homosexuality.

Reports from the 2001 United Methodist annual conferences indicate the church is showing its most significant worship increase in more than three decades. The Glenmary study showed the church declining in membership from 1990 to 2000 by 6.7 percent nationally and 20 percent in the Toledo area.

Although most congregations believe they will grow by attracting the so-called unchurched, the Congregational Life Survey found that 57 percent of the people who had joined a church in the last five years transferred from other congregations of the same faith. Only 7 percent were joining a congregation for the first time. Another 18 percent were returning to a faith tradition after not attending anywhere; 18 percent were switching to a new faith group.

Dr. Woolever said evangelical Protestants had a higher percentage of switchers and returnees than the national average, and mainline Protestants had the highest percentage of returnees.



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