Report says trends for U.S. churches mostly pointing down

September 28, 2011

(RNS) American congregations have grown less healthy in the last decade,
with fewer people in the pews and aging memberships, according to a new
Hartford Seminary study.


But there are also "pockets of vitality," including an increase in
minority congregations and a surge in election-related activities at
evangelical congregations.


The findings coming from the new Faith Communities Today (FACT)
survey are based on responses from more than 11,000 Christian, Jewish
and Muslim congregations in 2010 and more than 14,000 congregations in
2000.


In the first decade of the 21st century, the median worship
attendance at a typical congregation decreased, from 130 to 108.


"It means we have a lot more smaller congregations," said David
Roozen, author of the report, "A Decade of Change in American
Congregations, 2000-2010," and director of the Hartford Institute for
Religion Research.


The percentage of congregations with average weekend worship
attendance of 100 or fewer inched up from 42 percent to 49 percent over
the decade. More than a quarter of congregations had 50 or fewer people
attending in 2010.


Across the board -- among white evangelical, white mainline and
racial/ethnic congregations -- there was a decrease in attendance.


While the number of megachurches almost doubled over the decade,
congregations with 2,000 or more weekly attendees make up just 0.5
percent of all congregations.


"There are more megachurches but, in fact, they're getting an
increasing piece of an overall shrinking pie," Roozen told the Religion
Newswriters Association annual conference in Durham, N.C., where he
released the findings.


In many cases, congregations are seeing not only fewer people but
older ones in their pews. At least one-third of members in more than
half of mainline Protestant congregations are 65 or older.


The pews have gotten so gray in mainline Protestant churches, he
said, that "oldline" is now probably a better descriptor.


"Half of oldline Protestant congregations could lose a third of
their members in 15 years," he said. "And that's about triple the rate
for any other religious family."


In the meantime, Roozen said, the racial/ethnic makeup of
congregations is reflecting the U.S. Census Bureau's prediction that
minorities will constitute the majority of Americans by 2050.


The percentage of congregations with majorities of members from
racial/ethnic groups, often including immigrants, grew from 23 percent
to 30 percent over the decade. These congregations are
disproportionately non-Christian or evangelical Protestant. They also
tend to have younger members.


While black congregations' involvement in voter education and
registration programs has remained high -- 55 percent in 2010 --
researchers found significant changes in evangelical and mainline
Protestant churches.


Evangelical churches involved in voter programs grew from 20 percent
to 26 percent, while mainline congregations' participation dropped from
16 percent to 12 percent. Half of non-black, evangelical Protestant
congregations with more than 450 weekly attendees are involved in
election-related programs.


In other findings:


-- More than 40 percent of congregations now use electric guitars or
drums often or always in worship, up from 29 percent in 2000.


-- One in five congregations that started since 2000 began in new
suburbs.


-- Eight in 10 congregations said the recent recession had a
negative effect on their finances.