A new report on America's congregations confirms what many already know – that churches are struggling and facing decline. But analysts say there is hope amid the negative trends.
"It is a story of concern, but also a story of hope," analysts of the new Faith Communities Today 2008 (FACT 2008) survey state. "It is the story of an emerging, persistent and broad based downward trend in congregational vitality. But it is also a story of pockets of vitality that are suggestive of the potential for moving forward."
In a first look at FACT 2008, which will release in full next month, researchers revealed that fewer congregations reported spiritual vitality or worship attendance growth between 2005 and 2008.
In 2008, less than half of American congregations – from old line and evangelical Protestantism, to Catholic, Orthodox and other world religions – reported growth in the past five years of 2 percent or more. Three years earlier, 58 percent said they experienced growth in worship attendance.
Only 35 percent of congregations said they were spiritually vital and alive in 2008 compared to 42 percent in 2005. Also, 36 percent reported having a clear mission and purpose in 2008 while 41 percent said the same three years earlier.
Financially, congregations are not faring so well either. In 2008, 19 percent reported excellent financial health, down from 31 percent in 2000.
But as analysts pointed out, the survey – conducted by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership – revealed some positive trends.
According to FACT2008, there was no increase in conflict in congregations. Although in 2008, three in four congregations reported having conflict in the past five years in the area of finances, worship, leadership or program priorities, that statistic has remained virtually the same since 2000.
Specifically, the style of worship has proven to lead to conflict in some churches. But for congregations where the conflict never became serious, they reported higher levels of vitality.
While 44 percent of congregations that kept their traditional style of worship reported an increase in worship attendance, 64 percent of churches that recently adopted a more contemporary style of worship saw higher attendance.
FACT2008 also found that congregations with a distinct identity were doing well. Among evangelical Protestant congregations, 60 percent of those that identified themselves as "very different" from other congregations in the community reported high spiritual vitality while only 33 percent of those that felt they were less different reported the same.
Congregations with high spiritual vitality were also found to be more attentive to new persons. Congregations that encourage inviting someone to a new person class, help lead worship (reading, singing, taking up offering, etc.), and become involved in a social ministry are more spiritually alive than ones that don't. Moreover, congregations that provide regular training for its volunteers and also recognize them for their service have higher levels of spiritual vitality.
Congregations where leaders spend a great deal of time promoting vision and purpose and where a lot of time is spent in evangelism and recruitment were also found to have high spiritual vitality.
In other findings, congregations with more seniors (attendants who are 65 years or older) reported lower vitality. Old line Protestant churches were most likely to have seniors in their pews with 59 percent reporting that at least 26 percent of their congregations are seniors. Less than a quarter of evangelical churches reported as many seniors in their congregations.
FACT2008 was conducted on 2,527 randomly sampled congregations of all faith traditions in the United States. It is the latest survey in the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership's survey series on churches, synagogues, parishes, temples and mosques.