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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.
b y Scott Thumma, PhD
Co-Chair, Faith Communities Today
Director, Hartford Institute for Religion Research
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.

1 According 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.

2020 Survey In the Field

Our Faith Communities Today 2020 Survey is now in the field. Please see below for what that means for you!

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