What about People Who Attend but Don’t Join?

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In recent years, I have heard from many pastors who say that they are seeing an increase in the number of worshipers who attend their congregation regularly, but are not members. Do the data from the U.S. Congregational Life surveys support this perception?

In three areas, there has been a remarkable decline since 2001 in percent of worshipers who are members — those attending conservative Protestant churches, those attending their congregation for two years or less, and those under age 45.

In 2001, three-quarters of worshipers (77%) said they were members of their congregation. Another 2 percent were in the process of joining. That leaves two in ten who were not members of the congregation. Those numbers had not changed in the most recent survey (fall of 2008 and spring of 2009).

However, the 2008/2009 figures show that the percentage of worshipers who are members of their congregations varies in some important ways:

  • Membership rates are highest in mainline Protestant congregations (83% of worshipers are members) and lower in Catholic parishes (75%) and conservative Protestant churches (70%).
  • Membership rates are higher in small and mid-size congregations — 84 percent of worshipers are members in small (fewer than 100 in worship) and mid-size (100-350 in worship) congregations. In large churches with over 350 in worship, only 74 percent are members.
  • Worshipers who are new to their congregation — attending for two years or less — are much less likely to be members (45% are). Nine in ten of those attending for three years or more (88%) are members.
  • Younger worshipers are less likely to be members — only two-thirds of those under the age of 45 (68%), but eight in ten older worshipers (81%), are members.

So, we can begin to see what might be happening that would lead pastors to see a change. In three areas, there has been a remarkable decline since 2001 in percent of worshipers who are members:

  • Those attending conservative Protestant churches (from 77% to 70%)
  • Those attending their congregation for two years or less (from 53% to 45%)
  • Those under age 45 (from 72% to 68%)

This material originally appeared on the blog Beyond the Ordinary.

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About Author

Deborah Bruce was research manager for the Research Services office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and project manager for the monumental U.S. Congregational Life Surveys conducted in 2001 and 2008. She passed away in 2012.


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