The Role of National Religious Institutions in Congregational Affiliation and Growth
About a dozen years ago, the United Methodist Church, prompted by some of its Korean congregations, passed a resolution to grow from 9 million to 20 million by the year 2000. I wondered at the time how they decided 20 and not 15, or 25, or 30 million. It prompted me to ask how one would achieve such growth. What might a national strategy for growth look like? Can national denominations do anything to help local congregations grow?
To answer these questions, one needs a theory or set of assumptions about the way a local congregation or national denomination grows. I came up with a very simple formula. People come into religious organizations in three ways, and they leave in three ways. They are born into a religious tradition, transfer in from another tradition, or convert from the ranks of the unaffiliated. They leave because they die, transfer out into another tradition, or drop out into the ranks of the unaffiliated. For the Methodist Church to grow to 20 million, 11 million more persons must come into the church by birth, transfer, or conversion than leave because of death, transfer, or dropping out. A denomination's growth strategy needs to be sensitive to all six elements in the formula.
In American Mainline Religion ( Roof & McKinney, 1987), we used this formula to look at future growth prospects for various religious groups: liberal Protestants, moderate Protestants, black Protestants, conservative Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and the unaffiliated. We relied on survey data from the General Social Survey, 1972-1984, a respected annual national poll of 1,500 Americans that includes data on religious affiliation ( Davis & Smith, 1992). Our focus was on denominational switching (movement into and out of faith traditions) and its implications for growth. We found evidence that there are differences among groups that help explain rates of