The Challenging Climate for U.S. Congregations

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The average congregation is getting smaller with a median size of around 60 attenders, reports Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. At the same time, a small percentage of large congregations accounts for around half of weekly worship attendance and increasingly dominates the religious landscape.


Much like the phenomenon of climate change where incremental shifts in average temperature are mostly imperceptible but can have devastating consequences, so too are the organizational shifts in the religious world. Many of the factors have developed gradually over the past several decades, although the full extent of these changes is just now being felt in a significant and detrimental way.

1. On average, congregations are getting smaller.

The 2015 FACT survey highlighted a disturbing trend of declining weekend service attendance that shows a 20-point decrease in median attendance every five years. Our present 2020 survey effort will likely show a median size around 60 attenders. This means that 50 percent of U.S. congregations have 60 or fewer in weekly services, with perhaps three-quarters of America’s faith communities having 100 or fewer attendees.

While many small congregations are quite vital, the 2015 study found they were significantly less likely than larger ones to be healthy on a number of measures. Shrinking size creates a snowball effect on functioning that can lead to a survival mentality that includes risk aversion, a fear of change, and a sense of inevitability of decline. This often results in the use of a part-time clergy person, strained budgets, and financial difficulty, as well as a declining ability to make building repairs, provide necessary services, and offer programs to members and the larger community. Collectively, these dynamics hinder efforts to attract new people and can lead eventually to the necessity of merger or closure.

2. Some congregations are growing considerably, and a few dominate the landscape.

The 2015 study showed that 32 percent of all congregations grew over 10 percent in five years, but over half of faith communities were in decline with most of those declining by 10 percent or more. Across the nation’s religious communities, a relative few (less than 10 percent of all congregations) are home to a majority of the country’s religious membership. This small fraction of faith communities accounts for over 50 percent of all religious persons in weekly services.

This means that of the approximately 350,000 congregations in the U.S. and roughly 130 million “weekly attendees,” about 35,000 congregations host 65 million people each week, while the other 65 million are shared by the remaining 315,000 faith communities. Furthermore, 67 percent of U.S. congregations that have 100 or fewer attendees only account for 16 percent of the total number of persons in services each week. Conversely, those 2.5 percent of U.S. congregations with 1,000 or more attendees account for over 30 percent of all weekly attendees.

This concentration of people in the largest congregations brings with it greater physical and financial resources, the advantages of buildings, skills, programs, child and youth ministries, and many other attractional dynamics that make their sustained growth more likely. This proportional imbalance has gotten worse throughout the past century, but the last two decades have greatly amplified this dynamic, much as we have seen recently with the income inequity in the U.S. Essentially, the largest congregations are increasingly dominating the “religious marketplace” while smaller faith communities are declining in size, resources, and membership at a rapid rate.

3. Religious communities and their leaders are aging.

This dramatically changing size inequity isn’t the only highly significant shift happening. Much has been made recently of the aging population within religious communities. The average age of congregational members and their religious leaders is rising considerably (especially in the Protestant Mainline). Based on our 2015 survey, religious attenders over 65 years of age make up nearly 30 percent of an average congregation. This aging dynamic can be seen in the age grouping of attenders, especially as compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Likewise, the average age of clergy is increasing, as is the average age of the congregations and their building structures.

While there are always exceptions, our 2015 analysis found that the older the average age of members and clergy persons, the less willing the congregation was to make adaptive changes or report having either contemporary or innovative worship. An aging congregation has less energy to reinvent itself or attract younger participants. It is also less likely to have a functioning children’s program, which is so important for drawing in young families. An older clergyperson is more likely to be risk averse and less willing to make changes required for revitalization. Additionally, an aging building requires a greater percent of the budget dedicated to upkeep, thus leading to diminished revenue for programming, ministry efforts, or community service.

Strategies to address these challenges

The unequal concentration of members combined with the general trend of an aging population creates a potential detriment for many congregations, but the situation isn’t insurmountable. Avenues for adaptation and examples of creative change exist, but it takes a willingness to risk and innovate. Possible strategies to address these challenges include:

  • Establishing creative partnerships to augment your presence and outreach, such as collaborating with other congregations for youth services, confirmation, mission trips, and fellowships. Perhaps partnering with local social service efforts or other nonprofit initiatives.
  • Developing a “bi-vocational” space in your building by opening it to a preschool, daycare, nonprofit, or recovery ministries, turning unused rooms into a yoga or exercise space, setting up an office co-working spot, or even opening the church to a dog-grooming effort.
  • Creating a spinoff service or congregation by beginning a new expression of worship style, a different time for service to attract a different group of people, opening up your building to use by another congregation, or assisting in planting a new congregation.
  • Adopting a community without expectation of member gains by evaluating your assets and addressing the needs of a part of your city. Invite groups to use your green space or parking for recreation, turn lawns into community gardens, or open the building to performances, community gatherings, and health screenings.
  • Merging with other area congregations on tasks and ministries, or even completely merging the congregations to create one stronger and more vital faith expression for the area.

This article was originally published by Faith Communities Today and is used by permission of the author. Please follow their work on Facebook.

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About Author

Scott Thuma

Scott Thumma, Scott is Director of Hartford Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. He co-directs the Insights into Religion Portal and isthe co-author of The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants.


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