HARTFORD, Conn.

Longer services. More substance abuse counseling. And a greater emphasis on the environment.

Add to the mix a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

What you get are some of the traits more likely to be found in fast-growing Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations in 2011, compared to the practices associated with fast-growing churches in the denomination in 2002.

Navigating the challenges posed by an uncertain economy, growing Presbyterian congregations appeared to embrace new opportunities to meet the needs of contemporary worshippers, Presbyterian researcher Ida Smith-Williams reported in a study presented at the recent annual meeting of the Religious Research Association.

Smith-Williams, a researcher with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Research Services office  and the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, compared survey data from 114 fast growing Presbyterian churches in 2011 with responses from 93 fast growing Presbyterian congregations in 2002.

In the post-recession period, the fastest growing congregations are doing more with less. In 2011, about three in 10 growing congregations reported increasing finances; in 2002, nearly three-quarters of growing churches said their finances were on the way up.

But fast growing congregations in 2011 continued to lead the way in using technology to reach out to potential new members.

In 2002, 70 percent of growing congregations had a website, a percentage similar to the average
Presbyterian congregation according to the 2008-2009 “wave” of The U.S. Congregational Life Survey. But 97 percent of fast-growing congregations in 2011 reported having a website.

While 73 percent of growing churches in 2002 reported placing an ad in the paper and 61 percent
advertised in the phone book, the evangelism strategies of six in 10 fast-growing churches in 2011 included following up with emails and using social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Among other changes, nearly half of the fastest-growing congregations in 2011 used visual projections in worship services, compared to 26 percent using those devices in 2002. Today's growing churches were also almost twice as likely to offer substance abuse counseling and four times as likely to offer animal welfare or environmental activities.

As some activities were added, others were cut back. Consider also these findings:

  • Longer services:  Even in an era of decreased attention spans, 89 percent of worship services in the fastest growing congregations in 2011 lasted more than an hour.  In 2002, just 55 percent of worship services in the fastest growing congregations were longer than an hour.
  • Missing teens: Six in 10 growing congregations in 2002 said participation by teens was part of the worship service. Just four in 10 of growing churches in 2011 reported teen participation.
  • Exit laughing: Ninety-one percent of growing churches in 2002 said laughter was part of their worship service. But that dropped to 80 percent of growing congregations in 2011.
  • Fewer sports: A quarter of growing congregations in 2011 reported offering sporting activities, compared to 38 percent of growing congregations in 2002.

It should not come as a big surprise that fast-growing congregations change over the years.

What is consistent throughout research on church growth is that openness to change and a commitment to embracing the future are key indicators of successful congregations.