Two new reports: Thumma / Bird on Megachurches and Chaves on American Congregations
Willow Creek's Reveal team begins suggesting principles of top churches

Fourteen theories of church growth from seven research teams

Between 2001 and 2009, seven different teams of national researchers have used quantitative data to suggest 14 different factors that correlate with church growth.

I looked at work from seven researcher teams: Stark, Hout/Greeley/Wilde, Woolever/Bruce, Stetzer/Dodson, Olson, Chaves, and Thumma. 

Here is a summary of the 14 factors which I document fully below: (1) witnessing, (2) strictness, (3) high fertility rates, (4) caring for children and youth, (5) high involvement, (6) welcoming new people, (7) leadership, (8) prayer, (9) being a church of 1000+ attendees or under 50 attendees, (10) being located in rural counties, (11) being in rapidly growing zip codes, (12) being in a tradition that is altering worship practices slightly but not too much, (13) churches that offer “intimacy and choice” and (14) attractive worship style, senior pastor, and church reputation.

It is clear that the causative factor in church growth is in dispute.

Researchers should consider these theories as they design studies and interpret data. 

Pastors should realize that a consensus has not been achieved and thus caution should be exercised when one researcher claims to have found the cause of church growth.

The 14 factors that researchers claim correlate with church growth       

1. Witnessing

Rodney Stark suggests that fervent witnessing and strict beliefs are the key factors.

He writes, “Why do conservative churches outperform the liberals? Because they work much harder at attracting and holding members. How do they do that? By inspiring their members to witness to others.”[1]

2. Strictness

Stark goes on to say,

For many observers of the American religious scene, especially Europeans, the real mystery is why the strict churches—those who demand the most of their members—are the ones that are flourishing, while the more permissive and accommodating churches are falling by the wayside . . . The findings in this chapter can be summed up in a sentence: strict churches are strong because groups that ask more from their members get more from them, which provides them with the resources to provide a more satisfying religious ‘product.’[2]

3. High fertility rates 

Some recent research by Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa Wilde suggests that high fertility rates are really the main factor contributing to growth.

U.S. Protestants are less likely to belong to "mainline" denominations and more likely to belong to “conservative” ones than used to be the case. Evidence from the General Social Survey indicates that higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations explains 76% of the observed trend for cohorts born between 1903 and 1973: conservative denominations have grown their own. Mainline decline would have slowed in recent cohorts, but a drop-off in conversions from conservative to mainline denominations prolonged the decline. A recent rise in apostasy added a few percentage points to mainline decline. Conversions from main- line to conservative denominations have not changed, so they played no role in the restructuring.[3]

4. Caring for children and youth

5. High involvement

6. Welcoming new people

Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce suggest that “Three congregational strengths are positive predictors of numerical growth: Caring for Children and Youth, Participating in the Congregation [including giving rates], and Welcoming New People.”[4] However, they also note: “Other factors don't predict growth — denomination or faith group, congregational size, income levels of worshipers, average age of worshipers, and population growth around the church.”[5]—conflicting with some other theories. They also note:

Many new people (47%) visit for the first time because someone invited them; only 6% came for the first time due to advertising . . . People return because of the quality of the sermon (36%), the friendliness of the people (32%), and the overall worship experience (30%) . . . Growing congregations are more likely to hold events to meet new people or to add members, advertise in the newspaper or telephone book, use email, have a church Web site, and send materials to or telephone first-time visitors . . . Services in growing congregations are more likely to include contemporary music and laughter.[6]

7. Leadership

Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson report that “we let the data set the agenda, and godly leadership was at the top.”[7]

8. Prayer

Stetzer and Dodson go on to suggest that “Prayer, Children’s Ministry, Evangelism, Youth Ministry, and Leadership” were the top five areas that were changed in the growing churches they studied.[8]

9. Being a church of 1000+ attendees or under 50 attendees

David Olson points out that large (1000+ attendance) and small churches (1-49 attendance) are growing at the fastest rates. “While the larger churches grew according to expectation, the smallest churches actually grew at a faster yearly rate. The churches that declined the most were those with a weekly attendance between 100 and 299.”[9]

Confirming this findings from another angle, Olson reports that in the fourteen diverse denominations he studied, all the denominations that were growing were planting lots of churches; specifically all those denominations planting at least one new church per year for every one hundred existing churches continued to grow.[10]

Mark Chaves affirms the movement of people into large churches.

In every denomination on which we have data, people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches, and this is true for small and large denominations, for conservative and liberal denominations, for growing and declining denominations. This trend began rather abruptly in the 1970s, with no sign of tapering off.[11]

10. Being located in rural counties

Olson points out from his research that “Growing churches were more likely to be rural and less likely to be small town, suburban, or urban. While the common assumption is that rural churches are under the most stress, the research supports the opposite.”[12] Thumma and Travis similarly notes that “We are now seeing a rapid rise in the number of churches reaching megachurch proportions that are located in more exurban, formerly rural counties.”[13]

11. Being in rapidly growing zip codes

Olson also points out that growing population areas tend to have growing churches.

Only one [other] external factor was significant in the growth or decline of the church—the change in the population of its zip code. Fast-growing churches—those that increased by more than 20 percent in attendance—were more likely to be located in zip codes where the population growth was higher than the national average. If a church declined or was stable, it was more likely located in a low-growth zip code where population growth was lower than the national average.[14]

12. Being in a tradition that is altering worship practices slightly but not too much

Chaves hypothesizes the development of denominational traditions through “an ecological interpretation of denominational variation.”[15] He argues that denominations have developed from one another in terms of worship practices. New religious traditions (like the Pentecostal tradition) “position themselves relative to already existing groups such that their worship is different, but not too different, from prevailing worship practice.”[16] Chaves is just doing descriptive work but it is hard not to make the connections between this movement and the charts about denominational winners and losers in other books. He also tacitly acknowledges this, “It is remarkable that newer religious traditions tend to appear . . . less ceremonial and more enthusiastic . . . than older religious traditions. No major religious movement has successfully moved” the other direction.[17] It seems that this type of gradual variation “change that occurs through relatively small alterations in existing practice” toward more enthusiasm and less ceremony is a factor in growth.[18]

13. Churches that offer “intimacy and choice.”

Scott Thumma argues that “niche” house churches and megachurches both are offering individuals a product they are interested in. “In certain ways, the megachurch is the complete opposite of the house church, but with hundreds of ministries, programs, and fellowship groups, it offers intimacy and choice in one package.”[19]

14. Attractive worship style, senior pastor, and church reputation

Thumma’s latest report about megachurches notes that people report being attracted to the megachurch for three main reasons: worship style, senior pastor and church reputation. 

The worship style, senior pastor and reputation of the church were most strongly influential in initially bringing people into the megachurches. . . Clearly, most people coming to a megachurch need a direct personal contact with someone they know but it is the public image and their first impression of the church (shaped by the worship style, the personality and quality of the senior pastor and the church’s reputation) that potential, permanent participants find most appealing . . . those characteristics that are most influential for keeping the largest percentage of attenders are indeed the same three items that initially attracted them to the church – the senior pastor, worship style and church reputation.[20]

[1] Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008), 25.

[2] Stark, What Americans Believe, 29.

[3] Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 33. Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, Melissa J. Wilde, “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States,” The American Journal of Sociology, 107: 2 (Sep 2001): 468-500.

[4] Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, Beyond the Ordinary: 10 Strengths of U.S. Congregations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 113.

[5] Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, “Myths and Facts about Evangelism and Church Growth,” U.S. Congregations website, n.p. [cited 8 December 2008]. Online:

[6] Woolever and Bruce, “Myths and Facts.”

[7] Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 34.

[8] Stetzer and Dodson, Comeback Churches, 193.

[9] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 86.

[10] Olson, American Church in Crisis, 146.

[11] Mark Chaves, “All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context,” Review of Religious Research 47 (2006): 329.

[12] Olson, American Church in Crisis, 132-133.

[13] Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 26.

[14] Olson, American Church in Crisis, 132-133.

[15] Chaves, Congregations, 155.

[16] Chaves, Congregations, 152.

[17] Chaves, Congregations, 157.

[18] Chaves, Congregations, 156.

[19] Scott Thumma, “The Shape of Things to Come,” in Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions (ed. Charles H. Lippy; Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006), 194.

[20] Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, “Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches” The National Survey of Megachurch Attenders report (June 2009), Hartford Institute for Religious Research website, n.p. [cited 16 June 2009], 15. Online:


This was an appendix for a paper for Mark Chaves during the fall of 2008.


Andy Rowell, “Fourteen theories of church growth from seven research teams” Church Leadership Conversations blog (June 16, 2009),  n.p. [cited 16 June 2009]. Online:

There are at least four reasons why the theories differ.    

(a) It is difficult to find just one correct hypothesis to account for church growth. 

(b) Many of the the researchers do not explicitly intend for church leaders to “try these things out in your churches” though church leaders often jump to this conclusion.   

(c) Even with proven trends, there are almost always exceptions.

(d) The details of the social science deserve scrutiny.

See the outline of my unpublished essay “Eight Warnings for Church Leaders about Using Sociologist Data" in my post Two new reports: Thumma / Bird on Megachurches and Chaves on American Congregations

For more sociology regarding churches, see my Sociology category.


I have not yet looked at

FACTs: A new look at the dynamics of growth and decline in American congregations based on the Faith Communities Today 2005 national survey of congregations
C. Kirk Hadaway
on Growth: A Publication of Faith Communities Today and CCSP