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Major Study Examines Ten Years of Changes in American Congregations
Despite bursts of innovation, pockets of vitality and forays into greater civic participation, American congregations are less healthy today than 10 years ago.
Among the warning signs for congregations are drops in financial health, continuing high level of conflict, an aging membership, fewer people in the pews, and decreasing spiritual vitality.
Still, the decade saw increases in interfaith involvement, innovative worship, use of electronic technology and a greater variety of member-oriented and mission-oriented programs.
These are among the conclusions drawn from a major new Faith Communities Today 2010 survey of American congregations.
FACT is releasing a new report, titled “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000 – 2010,” that explores the health of congregations and how their health has changed in the past 10 years.
The Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership (CCSP) conducted the FACT 2010 survey, and analyzed responses from 11,077 randomly sampled congregations of all faith traditions in the United States. The survey updates results from surveys taken in 2000, 2005, and 2008 and is the latest in CCSP’s series of trend-tracking national surveys of U.S. congregations. Overall, the FACT survey series includes responses from more than 28,000 congregations.
David A. Roozen, Director of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership and Professor of Religion and Society at Hartford Seminary, said that “This is a significant report that offers a quick, if not somewhat sobering, check-up for congregations and religious leaders who support congregations. It presents many of the most significant mechanisms that encourage vitality and growth, and also several of the most challenging circumstances that lead to decline.”
“Congregations are the organizational foundation of religion for their members and one of the strongest threads in the civic fabric of an American society that is, today, under stresses of historic proportions. Overall, this report says they continue to be key players in society, but they need to be more intentional in their worship and response to conflict, and open to technological innovation and the increasing diversity of American society,” Roozen said.
The report offers findings in these categories:
Innovative Worship: The surge in contemporary worship continued, to more than 40 percent of congregations that always or often use electric guitars or drums in their worship in 2010. Also, both innovative and contemporary worship are catalysts of spiritual vitality.
Religion Goes Electronic: A third of congregations reported that their use of modern technology grew more than 10 percent. The more a congregation uses technology, the more open it is to change.
Racial/Ethnic Congregations: There has been a dramatic increase in racial/ethnic congregations, many for immigrant groups. In 2010, three in ten congregations reported that more than 50 percent of their members were members of minority groups, up from two in ten in 2000. One clear impact of the increase in minority congregations is that they inject a strong dose of growth and vitality into American religious life.
“Congregation is More Than Worship”: Despite the overall erosion in congregational vitality and size from 2000 to 2010, there has been a slight increase in member-oriented and mission-oriented programming.
Financial Health: The number of congregations with excellent financial health declined from 31 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2010. Eighty percent of congregations reported that the recent recession negatively affected their finances.
Congregational Conflict: Almost two of every three congregations experienced conflict in 2010. In a third of the congregations, the conflict was serious enough that members left or withheld contributions, or a leader left. Conflict is corrosive – it leads to attendance decline and financial stress.
Demographic Details: The average percentage of participants over 65 has increased at the same time as the average percentage of 18-34 year olds has declined. Racial/ethnic congregations buck this trend, with significantly higher proportions of young adults among their participants than white congregations. Among historically white congregations, the membership of the typical Oldline Protestant congregation is much older than that of Evangelical Protestant congregations. For 75 percent of Oldline Protestant congregations, less than 10 percent are young adult. This aging of congregations is significant because as congregations age, their capacity for change erodes.
Interfaith Engagement: A little more than one in ten congregations surveyed in 2010 indicated they had shared worship across faith traditions in the past year, 13.9 percent in 2010 versus 6.8 percent in 2000. A special report on congregations’ interfaith engagement is available at www.faithcommunitiestoday.org.
The Electoral Process: There has been a reversal between Oldline and Evangelical Protestantism in political action, through voter registration or education programs, in the past decade. While the use of the political process declined from 2000 to 2010 among Oldline Protestant Congregations, to 11.9 percent, it surged among Evangelical Protestant congregations, to 25.8 percent. The Black church also continues to use the political process, with 55 percent saying they offer voter education or registration campaigns.
Church Attendance: The average weekend worship attendance at a typical congregation declined from 2000 to 2010. Median weekend worship attendance at the typical congregation dropped from 130 to 108 during the past decade. More than one in four American congregations had fewer than 50 in worship in 2010.
Spiritual Vitality: Fewer congregations report high spiritual vitality – from 42.8 percent in 2000 to 28.4 percent in 2010. This decline in spiritual vitality is true across the board – including denominational family, race and ethnicity, region and size. Among the trends that negatively impact spiritual vitality are decreasing financial health, shrinking worship attendance, aging membership and high levels of conflict. One unexpected finding is that spiritual vitality rises considerably higher at the liberal end of the theological continuum than the very conservative end.
In conclusion, Roozen said, “Despite bursts of innovation, pockets of vitality and interesting forays into greater civic participation, American congregations enter the second decade of the twenty-first century a bit less healthy than at the turn of the century.”
Links to view the report and related material are available at: www.faithcommunitiestoday.org.
Hartford Seminary and Faith Communities Today will hold a webinar for journalists on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. The webinar is open to invited journalists; to reserve a slot, go to https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/610661386. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information on how to join the web conference.
Faith Communities Today surveys and publications are products of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a collaborative, multifaith coalition of American faith communities affiliated with Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
FACT/CCSP offers research-based resources for congregational development that are useful across faith traditions, believing that all communities of faith encounter common issues and benefit from one another’s experiences. It also informs the public about the contributions of congregations to American society and about the changes affecting and emanating from one of America’s major sources of voluntary association – local congregations. For more information on CCSP, visit www.faithcommunitiestoday.org.
About Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: Hartford Seminary focuses on interfaith relations, congregational studies and faith in practice. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has a 30-year record of rigorous, policy-relevant research, anticipation of emerging issues and commitment to the creative dissemination of learning.
David Roozen, Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, is available for interviews; contact him at email@example.com or (860) 509-9546.