Decade of Change

The health of America's congregations remains a challenging situation, according to a newly released report from Faith Communities Today.

A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010, authored by David A. Roozen, shows that despite efforts at innovation, bursts of vitality and increased civic participation, faith communities are entering this decade less healthy than they were at the turn of the century.

In 2010, more than one in four congregations had fewer than 50 people in the pews. And although the number of megachurches doubled in the last decade, the growth of the Evangelical church seems to be plateauing and their congregations beginning to shrink.

Roozen said the ageing Oldline congregations and the halted growth of the Evangelical church are “two of the big stories” in this research.

“What’s interesting is how old the Oldine really is,” he said. “Half of the congregations could lose one-third of their members in 15 years.”   Over half (53 percent) of Oldine Protestant congregations consists of seniors 65 years old or older, and 75 percent of these churches said that 18-34 year olds make up less than 10 percent of their membership.

Roozen said the church is losing older members to disabilities or death and there are no young adults to take their place.  Young adults aren’t really abundant in the Evangelical churches either.  “The Evangelical growth movement has basically halted and begun to retreat,” he said.  Additionally, the study found a steep drop in financial health and continuing high levels of conflict.

Nevertheless, churches are trying new things and working hard to stay alive.
The survey found considerable growth in racial/ethnic immigrant congregations.  Likewise, there was dramatic adoption of electronic and Internet technologies.  Additionally, many congregations had a general increase in the breadth of both member-oriented and mission-oriented programs.

A further positive characteristic from the study indicated an increase in connections across all faith traditions, especially among those more civic-oriented communities.  Since the Sept.11 attacks, congregations have gotten more involved in interfaith work and are cooperating more for the social good of their communities. In the past decade, American congregations’ involvement in interfaith worship doubled and their involvement in interfaith community service nearly tripled.  Although interfaith work has increased in both Evangelical and Oldline churches, Roozen noted that the most liberal congregations have the highest level of this activity.  “Post Sept. 11 suddenly Muslims become visible," he said, adding that it was only natural for radically inclusive congregations to reach out.

A final indicator of health and vitality, Roozen noted, was that more churches are turning to contemporary worship. In 2010 electric guitars and drums could be found in one in four congregations, a 14 percent increase from 2000. Evangelical churches were the early adaptors of contemporary worship, but it has now gained a strong foothold in Oldine churches as well.

Roozen said the research shows contemporary worship to be a catalyst of spiritual vitality, especially when it was combined with other innovative worship practices.

Thus, while the overall prognosis for American congregations remains bleak, there are signs of health and optimism within several of the decade's religious  trends.

Download a PDF version of A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010