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A distinct identity helps churches remain vibrant

Mainline Protestants scored lower than other Christian groups when it comes to distinctiveness.

The more a congregation feels it has a distinct identity, the more likely it is that congregation is spiritually alive, according to a national study.

The Faith Communities Today 2008 report, a survey of 2,527 U.S. congregations, asked clergy leaders whether their congregation was different from others in their community. In half of the congregations surveyed, leaders answered that they were “very different” or “somewhat different.”  Those congregations scored twice as high on measures of spiritual vitality as congregations that said they were “somewhat the same” or “very much the same” as other churches.

The results suggest that congregations with a clear sense of identity are ones where worship is likely to be thought provoking, joyful and reverent.

Or, put another way, “those pastors that spend more time working the vision thing are more likely to be in a vital congregation,” says David Roozen, the report’s author and the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The report did not explore how a church achieved its distinct identity or what its mission statement says. In fact, Roozen thinks it may not matter. What’s important is the perception that a church is different, not whether it actually is.

Specifically, the FACT2008 survey found that mainline Protestants scored lower than other religious groups when it comes to distinctiveness. Only 14 percent of mainline Protestant denominations describe themselves as different from others in their community, compared with 27 percent of evangelical Protestant denominations, 24 percent of Roman Catholic and Orthodox congregations, and 29 percent of non-Christian faith groups.

While some may argue that mainline Protestant congregations are less distinctive because they tend to be smaller and, in many cases, rural, the study found that location and size made no difference to a congregation’s perception of its distinctiveness.

In addition, the report found that churches with a high percentage of older members tended to lack a clear identity. This may help explain why mainline Protestant churches had a less distinct sense of purpose than other Christian groups, since those congregations have a far higher percentage of older members.

Overall, churches with a strong sense of their own distinctiveness enjoyed robust growth, sounder finances and fewer conflicts. 

Roozen says there are several reasons why a clear sense of identity may help a congregation. It gives participants a common goal and it helps them channel resources toward that goal. It also gives members a concrete area in which to express their creativity.

“In less successful, more diffuse settings people aren’t sure what to do and they fear competition,” he says.

Few churches, however, have clear formulas for how to arrive at a sense of distinctiveness. And it’s not a discipline seminaries embrace.

“I can’t imagine a seminary teaching a course on branding, or even the ‘purposeful church’” says Roozen.

In the church context, a sense of distinctiveness may be partly an exercise in organizational theory, partly a matter of theology.

“What’s not clear,” says Roozen, “is how you build that.”

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