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Congregations Struggle With Attendance, Finance

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The past decade hasn’t been kind to American congregations. But things may not be that ominous.

Religion researchers point to four broad trends that emerge from the biggest congregational studies of the past decade. Those include the

the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, the National Congregations Study, and Faith Communities Today’s "A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010".

Congregations aren’t as conflicted as commonly thought.

According to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 7 percent of U.S. congregations reported high levels of conflict in 2001. Seven years later, in 2008, that number increased by only 1 percent. Similarly, the National Congregations Study (NCS) showed that fewer than one in 10 congregations experience “persistent conflict.”

“I think it (conflict) is something we should nuance more,” says Cynthia Woolever, director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. “Half of all churches have minor conflicts, but the amount of conflict where a pastor leaves, or where members leave, is still a pretty small percentage.”

She says minor conflicts are actually a good thing because they spur fruitful dialogue. The extreme conflicts though, she says, are found in less than 5 percent of churches.

Mark Chaves, principal investigator of NCS, says perceptions of congregational conflicts are high partly because of headlines. But in reality, clashes like the ones over homosexuality aren’t very common at all.

Technology is becoming as common as indoor plumbing.

By 2010, more than 90 percent of congregations used email, seven in 10 had websites, and four in 10 had Facebook pages, according to "A Decade of Change." NCS also showed that congregations are now embracing technology. The report concluded that the use of visual projection screens more than doubled in the past decade, website development also more than doubled and use of email almost tripled.

“Each year since 1998, some 10,000 congregations created a website,” according to the NCR study.

Woolever notes that more than 10 years ago congregations cringed at the idea of going online. Now, she says, “having a website has become like having  (indoor) plumbing.”

Chaves says the increase in technology is obvious, but wonders what consequences it might bring. He explains that although there’s been an uptick in the use of technology, not all congregations have made the transition, causing a digital divide in the faith community.

Research shows that bigger, wealthier, and often Caucasian, churches are dominating the Web, he says, while smaller, struggling, often black, congregations are left behind.

Congregations are shrinking and graying:

•    The percentage of people attending congregations with 50 people or less grew by 5.7 percent over the past decade, according to "A Decade of Change." (In 2000, 21 percent of people belonged to small churches. By 2010, that number increased to 26.7 percent.)

•    In 2008, 30 percent of worshipers were 65 years old or older, compared to 24 percent in 2001 (U.S. Congregational Life Survey).

•    In 2006-07, less than 20 percent of congregations were 35 years old or younger, a 5 percent drop from 1998 (NCS).

“It’s clear that something is happening with worship attendance,” Woolever says. “The best we can say is that (right now) worship attendance is stable.”

David Roozen, author of "A Decade of Change," said if congregations want to survive, they’ll have to think outside the box to get younger generations in the door.

“Contemporary music is probably not going to do it,” he says, noting that even megachurch attendance is starting to plateau.

Finances are tighter.

Even before the 2008 recession, congregations have been watching their bank accounts fade. Roozen says churches have been forced to make tough budget decisions, and as a result both moral and spiritual vitality have gone down.

According to "A Decade of Change," in 2000, 31 percent of congregations reported being in excellent financial health. In 2010, that number dropped to 14 percent.

“We are seeing churches rely on other strings of revenue,” says Woolever. “Some are drawing more from endowments and trusts, some are renting their facilities, and in some cases they’re actually selling their buildings, though those are extreme cases.”

Putting the data to good use.

Woolever says it’s important for faith leaders to pay attention to these research findings because it will help them realize they’re not alone.

“It gives someone confidence to know that what they’re experiencing is pretty typical,” she says. “And I think pastors want to be more effective, that’s why they went into ministry; they’re hungry for good information.”

Chaves agrees, noting that the surveys can help congregations discover how they differ and in what ways they’re the same.

He is currently working on his next wave of research, which he expects to be released in 2013. Chaves recently published The American Religion: Contemporary Trends, which sums up the national survey data in more detail.

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