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Defining sustainability for new worshiping communities

Research data indicates NWCs are offsetting the annual loss of congregations

by Melody K. Smith | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — New worshiping communities are helping to offset the loss of congregations each year, according to data collected by Research Services.

“Although we consistently see more PC(USA) churches dissolve each year than we see organize, this net loss is mitigated by the inclusion of new worshiping communities,” said Dr. Angie Andriot, research analyst with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Research Services.

In fact, in 2013 — the first full year after the June 2012 launch of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities (NWC) initiative — the PC(USA) actually had a net gain of worshiping communities. This can be attributed to the excitement surrounding the launch of 1001. Since then, each year more new worshiping communities start than close.

The average lifespan of an NWC that has closed is 3.5 years. And half of all NWCs make it to the four-year mark. In fact, 21% have made it to the seven-year mark.

But are NWCs sustainable? “The question itself is charged,” said the Rev. Nikki Collins, coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities. “Sustainability is not always a goal of a new worshiping community. Some arise to fill a particular need and dissipate when that need is fulfilled.

“What exactly does sustainability mean?” Collins asked. “They are asking, ‘How long do NWCs last, and can we use what we know about NWCs in order to predict sustainability (which, in this case, they mean longevity).’”

Research shows that the most common reason a worshiping community closes is failure to thrive. The second most common reason is that the leader moves on or away. The best predictor of a community’s longevity is whether it has a regular gathering space. In addition, support (financial or otherwise) from partner congregations, presbyteries and from the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s 1001 office all improve a community’s chance of staying active. The most impactful of these sources of support is from individuals in partner congregations, which increases an NWC’s chance of sustaining by 19%.

New worshiping communities that do not identify as “church” are more likely than those that do to have closed since the launch of the 1001 initiative. “This could be explained by intent,” said Collins. “Perhaps those which identify as ‘church’ are more interested in building something that lasts, whereas ‘unchurched’ communities might be shorter-lived by design.”

There is likely also a special challenge to a community’s sustainability when focusing on the unchurched — those with no faith affiliation. In fact, 22% of worshiping communities that identify as focusing on the unchurched are closed, whereas only 12% of those that self-identify as churches are closed.

Immigrant fellowship and communities of color tend to have greater longevity than white and multi-ethnic or multicultural communities. Part of the reason for this difference by race is that white communities are more likely than others to identify as “non-churched,” which has that 22% close rate. In addition, immigrant fellowships and communities of color are more likely to identify as churches. “The causal relationship cannot be identified from the data,” said Andriot. “It could be the fact that they are communities of color, that they are structured as churches, both, or something else entirely that contributes to the greater stability of these NWCs.”

What doesn’t seem to matter? The research on new worshiping communities includes too small a group to draw inferences, but there is some evidence that operating a business does not protect the sustainability of an NWC. Of the 12 NWCs that reported owning a business in 2015, four are now closed (33%). This is nearly twice as high as the 17% average NWC closing rate. Also, meeting frequency does not seem to impact sustainability. Regarding the leaders, it does not seem to matter whether they are ordained as a minister, or whether they are paid for their job leading the worshiping community.

You can read the entire New Worshiping Community Sustainability Report here.


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