New FACT update on congregational life available online

12-21-2009 by

Geoff Ashmun
McCormick professor one of two Presbyterian reps on multi-faith study

Dr. Deborah Kapp, Campbell Professor of Urban Ministry at McCormick, is one of two Presbyterian representatives involved in a fascinating, multi-faith study on the vitality of congregational life in the United States called Faith Communities Today, or FACT.

Conducted by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership (CCSP), a collaborative, multi-faith coalition of American religious communities affiliated with Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research, FACT 2008, now available online, is the latest update on research started in the late 1990s. It continues to reveal what CCSP has named an “emerging, persistent and broad based downward trend in congregational vitality” based on several indicators including worship attendance, age of members, financial health, and identity.

However, rather than serve as a grim reminder of the challenges facing mainline Protestant traditions in particular, the study is designed to serve as an accessible, responsible resource for a variety of audiences – from denominational staff to schools to churches – representing what the report calls those “pockets of vitality” working toward a way forward. Breakout materials include guides that are designed to take a more nuanced look at church growth, church conflict, and church finance than what is typically available.

“One of the tricky things about teaching ministers is that there is a lot of overly simplified material available out there, which, while useful to some extent, is ultimately misleading because it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the issues ministers face,” Kapp said. “You might hear someone say, for instance, that a congregation needs to adopt a new style of worship or it is not going to grow. And while worship style is certainly an important factor, you simply can’t reduce a church’s prospects for growth like that. We’re interested in developing material that goes deeper.”

Kapp, who has a Ph.D. in Sociology and has taught masters and doctoral courses on ministry and congregational leadership at McCormick since the mid-1990s, uses CCSP material in her coursework and sees the FACT study as an important tool for McCormick’s own academic development.

“It’s useful in a setting such as McCormick because it helps us see the big picture issues in our religious landscape that really need attention. For instance, when we see a strong correlation between the prevalence of conflict and diminished spiritual vitality in a congregation, that’s very suggestive for a theological curriculum.”

CCSP conducted the FACT2008 survey and analyzed questionnaires from 2,527 randomly sampled congregations of all faith traditions in the United States. The survey updates results from surveys taken in 2000 and 2005, and is the latest in CCSP’s series of trend-tracking national surveys of U.S. congregations.