Penny Marler and Kirk Hadaway, veteran church observers, have documented that denominations grow, not primarily for ideological reasons (there was a time when we thought that “conservative,” “evangelical,” churches were growing churches, whereas “liberal,” churches declined), nor for primarily sociological reasons (some church growth observers contended that sociological similarities led to growing churches) but rather because growing denominations tend to start new congregations.
Old denominations are renewed as the percentage of new churches in their total number of churches increases. Hadaway and Marler conclude in their study of new church development that new churches are a cause of growth in mainline denominations. This research concludes that mainline denominations, like the United Methodist, have shown that little growth has come from new churches in recent years, because these denominations simply started so few. However, growth has been enhanced in those eras in which they have started many – even when controlling for period effects. So for the mainline, new churches are more a cause of growth than they are a symptom of growth. When these denominations make the effort to start new churches, they tend to grow (or at least moderate their declines.) When they do not make the effort, they tend to decline. Period.
Kirk Hadaway suggests that as young churches mature, they tend to “bottom out” and stop growing after about two decades of growth. In other words, even new congregations have a “window of opportunity” for significant growth that may last for 10 or 15 years. Why do new churches tend to grow more rapidly than older churches? It could be, Hadaway notes, that new churches are more flexible and open to change; growth-producing ideas can be put more quickly into practice; innovative leaders are allowed to lead; rapid adjustments can still be made to changing circumstances; and friendship networks have not yet solidified, allowing for easy acceptance of new members. Research conducted by Hadaway on Southern Baptist churches shows clearly how the age of a church affects its growth pattern. Only one in four Southern Baptist churches in his study organized prior to 1927 had growth in excess of 10 percent from 1981 to 1986, whereas nearly 68 percent of churches founded between 1972 and 1981 experienced this kind of growth.
The good news in these insights is that we can stop blaming one another for our decline saying things like, “We need to work harder,” or “We need to be more conservative in our theology,” and instead to say simply, “We need to start more new congregations.”
(Reported in Rekindling the Mainline by Stephen C. Compton, The Alban Institute, 2003, pp. 73-74)
William H. Willimon
The wealth of evidence that reveals American Protestant churchgoers born after 1960 can be found in disproportionately large numbers in congregations founded after 1960.
— The Ice Cube is Melting: What is Really at Risk in United Methodism?, Lyle E. Schaller, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004, pg. 38.