An Ever-Changing Landscape: Challenges & Responses of American Faith Communities
by Scott Thumma, PhD (Co-Chair, Faith Communities Today and Director, Hartford Institute for Religion Research)
Not another article describing doom and gloom for religious communities. Well, yes and no. Our Faith Communities Today reports walk a fine line between reporting the overall trends, often of decline, while also providing insights about positive responses to these trends and possible paths of hopefulness and vitality.
We live in a period of significant cultural unsettledness. In many ways, a perfect storm of social and demographic change batters traditional congregations and erodes the very foundations of their memberships and programming effectiveness. Countless religious leaders have found that their cherished approaches to worship, community building, religious education and retention of younger generations no longer work as they once did.
An aspect of the Faith Communities Today mission is to track such dynamics, but we are also about helping congregations of all faith traditions understand these environmental currents. That allows us to respond creatively to the social reality that exists, not the one we wish would be true.
Over the next several newsletters, we will highlight a number of the challenges for congregations. We will offer possible responses to these challenges and solicit ideas from readers, which our newsletter and Facebook page will pass along to everyone.
In the coming months, this series will discuss several key topics that converge to create the perfect storm currently challenging the vitality of our faith communities, including:
- The religious organizational changes, happening primarily in Christian congregations, such as the aging of the membership and clergy, the shrinking size of a large percentage of faith communities, the increasing reality of bi-vocational religious leadership and issues of what to do with closed sanctuaries.
- Further religious challenges due to the declining significance of denominationalism, the rise of nondenominational and parachurch networks, niche and mall-like congregations, alternative models for delivering religious goods and diminishing loyalty and commitment to a single congregation or even religious tradition within the spiritual marketplace.
- The now well-known generational shifts in demographics and religious orientation as well as the implications of economic, marital and birth rate patterns within households and family dynamics.
- The cultural alterations within our society including the divide between the religious and secular realities, the growing acceptance of a secular worldview, individualism amplified by social media and the on-demand customization of our lives, and the changing nature of civic engagement and volunteerism.
- And finally the societal changes brought about by the migration of populations within the US, immigration, and changing time pressures on families and working persons.
This evolving social and religious context forms the basis for many of the questions Faith Communities Today asks on our national surveys. The project strives to understand these challenges but also the ways in which congregations are adapting to these dynamics. We hope this coming series will be both stimulating and instructive as we begin to collect and analyze our 2020 national survey.