- Associated Press - Thursday, September 2, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. | It’s the conundrum Protestant denominations with declining memberships and shrinking budgets are desperate to solve: how to stem the decades-long losses and attract new worshippers.

The United Methodist Church, the third-largest denomination in the country, thinks it could be closer to finding the answer. It commissioned an ambitious survey of nearly all its 33,000 U.S. churches to find out what its churches with growing memberships are doing to keep congregations thriving.

Of those churches, the four key factors of vitality stood out as “crystal clear findings that are actionable,” according to the survey:

- Small groups and programs, such as Bible study and activities geared toward youth.

- An active lay leadership.

- Inspirational pastors who have served lengthy tenures at churches.

- A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services.

One of the successful churches is St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, which has seen its membership grow steadily over the years to nearly 6,200.

The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Kent Millard, said it has offered both traditional and contemporary worship services for years. At a contemporary service, congregants kick back with doughnuts and coffee, a live band plays music, and clips from Hollywood movies are shown to illustrate Gospel messages.

“Worship is like going to a mall,” Mr. Millard said. “There are all kinds of stores. Some people like specialty shops. Some like department stores. When you have variety, people can go where they like.”

Religious scholars say the exhaustive survey is likely the first of its kind to try solving problems that for years have plagued mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.

The U.S. membership of the United Methodist Church, which has most of its offices and operations in Nashville, dropped by nearly 1 percent last year, to 7.9 million members, according to Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, released by the National Council of Churches.

The Methodists’ survey, conducted by the consulting firm Towers Watson and sent out to churches in May, found that about 5,500 Methodist churches were considered vital, with high attendance, growth and congregation engagement. The project cost about $200,000.

Churches and pastors were asked survey questions such as, “Approximately, what percent of your church’s children participate in programs other than worship?” and to rate the “general effectiveness of the lay leadership in motivating and inspiring vitality in the life of the congregation.”

“The most important outcome of the research is that there are clearly drivers that are absolutely understandable and actionable,” said Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House and co-chairman of the steering committee that commissioned the survey.

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