A Hard Decade for American Churches, Study Says

Despite bursts of innovation, pockets of vitality and technological advances, the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a slow, overall erosion of the strength of America’s congregations, according to a recent report by Faith Communities Today.

Faith Communities Today is a multi-faith coalition that researches congregational life. David A. Roozen, the author of the study, conducted a survey of American congregations showing religious health and vitality are weaker than they were 10 years ago.

Conducted in 2000, 2005, 2008 and 2010, Roozen’s FACT series shows that the decade brought steep drop in financial health, continued high levels of conflict, fewer persons in the pews, a decrease spiritual vitality and aging memberships.

The survey overall is not a positive one. It shows that congregations are having hard times financially. In 2000, 31 percent of survey participants reported excellent financial health. In 2010, that number fell drastically, to just 14 percent.

“The recession affected nearly every kind of congregation equally,” Roozen said in the report. “A full 80 percent of American congregations reported in the survey [indicated] that their finances had been negatively impacted by the recession. It affected nearly every kind of congregation equally – large and small; north, south, east and west; financially healthy or struggling before the recession.”

Roozen said one of the disturbing surprises in the survey was the dramatically high level of conflict found in American congregations.

“Almost two of every three congregations in 2010 had experienced conflict in at least one of four key areas in the past five years,” he wrote in the report.

“In a third of the congregations the conflict was serious enough that members left or withheld contributions, or a leader left.”

Roozen said financial stress is a major cause of conflict, although far from the only one, and the negative impact of the recession late in the decade certainly contributed to the continuing high incidence of conflict.

However, he says what is more important is the corrosive effect of conflict on the overall vitality of congregational life.

The percent of congregations with high spiritual vitality sharply dropped, from 42.8 percent in 2005 to only 28.4 percent in 2010. Congregations that experience rapid worship attendance decline and financial stress continue to increase.

Roozen noted that several factors led to the decline, but overall, there are fewer Americans in the pews, and "... more than 1 in 4 American congregations had fewer than 50 in worship in 2010, and just under half had fewer than 100. Overall, median weekend worship attendance of your typical congregation dropped from 130 to 108 during the decade,” according to the FACT surveys.

It is interesting that megachurches – congregations with more than 2,000 members – continued to grow in popularity, but they still represent only a fraction of American congregations, at 0.5 percent.

"And while it appears to be true they [megachurches] are attracting an ever bigger slice of the religious attender pie, it is a bigger slice of a shrinking pie," Roozen wrote in the report.

Roozen remarked, "No single category or kind of congregation ... was exempt from the decadal downsizing of worship attendance."

On a positive note, churches, temples and synagogues with innovative and contemporary congregations also showed the highest amount of "high spiritual vitality” during the last decade.

Forty-seven percent of congregations that said their worship experience was "innovative and contemporary" also reported high spiritual vitality, versus 17 percent that said their congregations were "neither innovative nor contemporary."

The data came from Faith Communities Today surveys and represents 11,077 congregations and 120 denominations of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, the institute said. Most often, the congregation’s leader completed the surveys, and the institute estimates the margin of error to be plus or minus 4 percentage points.

To view A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010 visit http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/decade-change.