Study: U.S. Congregations Have Seen Better Days

By Joshua Witchger 9-19-2011

According to a new study by Hartford Seminary called Faith Communities Today, U.S. congregations are less healthy than they were 10 years ago.

From slimmer attendance rates to rising conflicts and stagnant spiritual vibrancy, the dawning of a new decade marked a time when, for many faith communities, the worship culture of yesteryear has continued to fall farther into decline.

Though spiritual communities remain influential in society, the latest batch of data provides critical insights for congregations seeking to overcome issues of loss and conflict, and to persevere -- and flourish -- in the decade to come.

With results from more than 28,000 congregations, the 2010 FACT study found that:
  • Attendance at a typical weekend service has fallen from 130 congregants in 2000 to 108 in 2010, with more than a quarter of all congregations reporting fewer than 50 congregants on average in 2010
  • "The average percentage of participants over 65 has increased at the same time as the average percentage of 18-34 year olds has declined," with 75 percent of "Oldline Protestant" churches claiming 10 percent (or less) young adults. However, racial/ethnic churches have much higher rates of active young adult congregants.
  • Three in ten congregation's claim that 50 percent or more of their members are from minority groups.
  • A 40 percent rise in worship music with electric guitars and drums, is seen as a "catalyst for spiritual vitality." But, FACT says, "the more a congregation uses technology, the more open it is to change."
  • In last year alone, nearly two-thirds of congregations experienced some sort of conflict, leading to a loss in attendance and an increase in financial stress.
  • The financial health of congregations fell from 31 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2010, with 80 percent of congregations reporting that the recent recession negatively affected their finances.
  • While spiritual vitality has declined from 42.8 percent in 2000 to 28.4 percent in 2010, "One unexpected finding is that spiritual vitality rises considerably higher at the liberal end of the theological continuum than the very conservative end," the report said.
  • The number of churches that participated in worship across faith traditions in the past year has risen from 13.9 percent in 2010 versus 6.8 percent in 2000.

Joshua Witchger is the online assistant at Sojourners.

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