The Challenging Climate for US Congregations
by Scott Thumma, PhD (Co-Chair, Faith Communities Today and Director, Hartford Institute for Religion Research)
Please note: the following reflection is the work of the stated author and does not necessarily represent the collective body that makes up the Faith Communities Today partnership.
This is the second installment in a 6 part feature exploring the challenging climate for US congregations. This article and the next explore the changes happening within the religious world while the latter three focus on shifts in the culture and social world external to congregational functioning. Which of these multiple dynamics came first is impossible to determine, but the fact that congregations are experiencing these simultaneously is a reality that each must come to realize and face creatively.
Much like the phenomenon of climate change where incremental shifts in average temperature are mostly imperceptible but can have devastating consequences, so too are the organizational shifts in the religious world. Many of the factors discussed in this article and the next have developed gradually over the past several decades, although the full extent of these changes are just now being felt in a significant and detrimental way.
On average, congregations are getting smaller. The 2015 FACT survey highlighted a disturbing trend of declining weekend service attendance that shows a 20 point decrease in median attendance every five years (see Figure 2). Our present 2020 survey effort will likely show a median size around 60 attenders. This means that 50% of US congregations have 60 or less in weekly services, with perhaps three-quarters of America’s faith communities with 100 or fewer attendees.
While many small congregations are quite vital, the 2015 study found they were significantly less likely than larger ones to be healthy on a number of measures. Shrinking size creates a snowball effect on functioning that can lead to a survival mentality which includes risk aversion, a fear of change, and a sense of inevitability of decline. This often results in the use of a part-time clergy person, strained budgets and financial difficulty, as well as a declining ability to make building repairs, provide necessary services and offer programs to members and the larger community. Collectively, these dynamics hinder efforts to attract new people and eventually can lead to the necessity of merger or closure.
Some congregations are growing considerably and a few dominate the landscape. The 2015 study showed that 32% of all congregations grew over 10% in 5 years, but over half of faith communities were in decline with most of them by 10% or more. Across the nation’s religious communities, a relative few (less than 10% of all congregations) are home to a majority of the country’s religious membership. This small fraction of faith communities account for over 50% of all religious persons in weekly services.
This means that of the approximately 350,000 congregations in the US and roughly 130 million “weekly attendees,”1 about 35,000 congregations host 65 million people each week, while the other 65 million are shared by the remaining 315,000 faith communities. In other words, 67% of US congregations that have 100 or less attendees only account for 16% of the total number of persons in services each week. Conversely, those 2.5% of US congregations with 1,000 or more attendees account for over 30% of all weekly attendees.
1According to Gallup, Pew and other polls, roughly 40% of Americans say they were in services in the previous week. This figure is disputed and most social scientists, including this author, think the percentage is closer to 20%, but for the sake of this example we will use the 40% figure. Learn more.
This concentration of people in the largest congregations brings with it greater physical and financial resources, advantages of buildings, skills, programs, child and youth ministries, and many other attractional dynamics that make their sustained growth more likely. This proportional imbalance has gotten worse throughout the past century, but as the median size change in Figure 2 above shows, the last two decades have greatly amplified this dynamic, much as we have seen recently with the income inequity in the US (see here or here). Essentially, the largest congregations are increasingly dominating the “religious marketplace” while smaller faith communities are declining in size, resources and membership at a rapid rate.
This dramatically changing size inequity isn’t the only highly significant shift happening. Much has been made recently of the aging population within religious communities. The average age of congregational members and their religious leaders is rising considerably (especially in the Protestant Mainline). Based on our 2015 survey, religious attenders over 65 years of age make up nearly 30% of an average congregation. This aging dynamic can be seen in the age grouping of attenders, especially as compared to the US population as a whole. Likewise, the average age of clergy is increasing, as is the average age of the congregations and their building structures.
While there are always exceptions, our 2015 analysis found that the older the average age of members and clergy persons, the less willing the congregation was to make adaptive changes or report having either contemporary or innovative worship. An aging congregation has less energy to reinvent itself or attract younger participants. It is also less likely to have a functioning children’s program, which is so important for drawing in young families. An older clergyperson is more likely to be risk averse and less willing to make changes required for revitalization. Additionally, an aging building requires a greater percent of the budget dedicated to upkeep, thus leading to diminished revenue for programming, ministry efforts or community service.
The unequal concentration of members combined with the general trend of an aging population creates a potential detriment for many congregations, but the situation isn’t insurmountable. Avenues for adaptation and examples of creative change exist, but it takes a willingness to risk and innovate.
- Establishing creative partnerships to augment your presence and outreach, such as collaborating with other congregations for youth services, confirmation, mission trips and fellowships. Perhaps partnering with local social service efforts or other nonprofit initiatives.
- Developing a “bi-vocational” space in your building by opening it to a preschool, daycare, nonprofit or recovery ministries, turning unused rooms into a yoga or exercise space, setting up an office co-working spot, or even opening the church to a dog-grooming effort.
- Creating a spinoff service or congregation by beginning a new expression of worship style, a different time for service to attract a different group of people, opening up your building to use by another congregation, or assisting in planting a new congregation.
- Adopt a community without expectation of member gains by evaluating your assets and addressing the needs of a part of your city. Invite groups to use your green space or parking for recreation, turn lawns into community gardens, or open the building to performances, community gatherings, and health screenings.
- Consider merging with other area congregations on tasks and ministries, or even actually merging the congregations to create one stronger and more vital faith expression for the area.
There are countless additional examples of congregations addressing these realities with creativity. Below are a few of many to inspire further creativity in your congregation:
- Congregation to Community: Shared Use by North Carolina Faith-Based Organizations
- Match Made in Heaven: Sacramento Churches Partner with Nonprofits to Boost Impact
- 50 Ways to Engage Local Schools
- Philadelphia Arts Groups Find Homes with Local Congregations
- Church-Nonprofit Partnership Proves a Godsend for Struggling Outreach Ministry
- Asset-Based Strategies for Faith Communities
- 10 Ways Your Church Can Be Good News to Public Schools
- The Multiplying Effect of Community Partnerships
- Doing Community Ministry in the Small Church
- Faith Community Nurses
- Michigan Church Shares Innovative Plan for Low-Cost Solar Panels