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It’s true: American Protestant congregations continue decline
Written by LESLIE SCANLON, Outlook national reporter
For mainline Protestant denominations, it is not good news.
A study looking at the health of American congregations over a decade — from 2000 to 2010 — found that “despite bursts of innovation and pockets of vitality, the first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed a slow, overall erosion of the strength of American’s congregations.”
The report — written by David Roozen of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research — didn’t turn up much good news for evangelical congregations. And the outlook was even more bleak for what Roozen calls “Oldline Protestant” churches, denominations such the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), along with the United Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, all of which are aging and losing members at a painful rate.
According to the study, 63 percent of Oldline congregations report a weekly attendance of 100 or fewer people, compared with 56 percent in 2000. More than one in four congregations overall had 50 or fewer in worship in 2010.
“What’s interesting is how old the Oldline really is,” Roozen wrote in a commentary accompanying the report. “Half of the congregations could lose one-third of their members in 15 years.”
In short: the Oldline congregations are made up disproportionately of older members, who slowly are dying off. There aren’t enough young people to take their places: About 75 percent of Oldline churches reported that fewer than 10 percent of their members were young adults, ages 18 to 34.
The story isn’t dramatically better for evangelical congregations. More of them are getting smaller too — with their percentage of congregations reporting 100 or fewer in attendance rising from 33 percent to 47 percent over the 10 years of the study. That finding matches overall declines or evening out in membership reported in recent years for denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
These findings come from the report “A Decade of Change in American Congregations: 2000-2010”, which is the result of a 2010 survey done by the ongoing survey project Faith Communities Today (FACT). FACT surveyed more than 10,000 congregations from a variety of faith traditions, including Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish and Baha’i.
The big picture from the research looks something like this:
» As more congregations grow older and smaller, many are feeling the financial pressures of having fewer people to give. That, plus declining membership overall, could have serious implications for their ability to survive. In 2000, about a third of congregations described themselves as having excellent financial health — compared to only 14 percent 10 years later.
» Across the board, churches are failing to connect with young people – increasing proportions of whom describe themselves as having no religious affiliation. The findings of this study echo those of earlier research. For example, a 2010 report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that just over a quarter of young adults born after 1980 (known as the millennial generation) said they don’t identify with any religious group. Only one in five said they attended worship every week or so. But about half of these young adults said they were “sure” God exists and about four in 10 reported praying daily. The study concluded that, compared to their parents and grandparents at the same ages, millennials were less connected to organized religion, but not necessarily more secular in outlook.
» Congregations and denominations that are overwhelmingly white — as is the PC(USA) — are feeling the brunt of demographic changes. An influx of immigrants, along with a higher birth rate among people of color than among whites, means that growing congregations tend to be found among non-white racial or ethnic groups.
» More congregations used new technology and contemporary worship
» The number of congregations with weekly attendance above 2,000 grew but still represented only .05 percent of American congregations.