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Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations

(RNS) — A brand new survey of 15,278 non secular congregations throughout the USA confirms tendencies sociologists have documented for a number of a long time: Congregational life throughout the nation is shrinking.

The latest spherical of the Religion Communities Right now survey, or FACT, discovered a median decline in attendance of seven% between 2015 and 2020.

The survey, fielded simply earlier than the coronavirus lockdown, finds that half of the nation’s estimated 350,000 non secular congregations had 65 or fewer folks in attendance on any given weekend. That’s a drop of greater than half from a median attendance stage of 137 folks in 2000, the primary yr the FACT survey gathered information.

As Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Faith Analysis and the survey’s creator, put it: “The dramatically growing variety of congregations under 65 attendees with a continued price of decline ought to be trigger for concern amongst non secular communities.”

Produced by the Hartford Institute for Faith Analysis, the FACT survey consists of self-reported questionnaires despatched out to congregational leaders each 5 years since 2000 — largely by way of 20 collaborating denominations and religion traditions.

“Declining Median Worship Attendance amongst US Congregations” Graphic courtesy of Religion Communities Right now

It discovered that mainline Protestants suffered the best decline over the previous 5 years (12.5%), with a median of fifty folks attending worship in 2020. Evangelical congregations declined at a slower price (5.4%) over the identical five-year interval and had a median attendance of 65 folks at worship. Catholic and Orthodox Christian church buildings declined by 9%.

RELATED: Study: More churches closing than opening

The one teams to spice up attendance over the previous 5 years had been non-Christian congregations: Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish.

“One of many meta narratives of the final a number of a long time is mainline decline and evangelical well being,” mentioned Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, non secular research and divinity at Duke College who carried out the same evaluation generally known as the Nationwide Congregations Examine. “It’s clear in recent times there’s been a decline in evangelical church buildings as effectively. Mainline decline just isn’t distinctive.”

The survey discovered that half of the nation’s congregations had been within the South, although solely 38% of the U.S. inhabitants lives there. It additionally prompt that small congregations in rural areas and small cities could also be unsustainable. Practically half of the nation’s congregations are in rural areas (25%) or small cities (22%), whereas the 2020 census discovered that solely 6% of People dwell in rural areas and eight% in small cities.

The nation’s altering demographics could also be key to rural and small-town decline. Younger folks have been shifting to city areas; companies and industries have additionally left these communities bereft of assets and expertise.

A rural church in Kansas. Photo by John Vachon/LOC/Creative Commons

A rural church in Kansas. Photograph by John Vachon/LOC/Artistic Commons

That doesn’t imply small church buildings are all going to shut. Allen Stanton, director of the Turner Middle for Rural Vitality on the College of Tennessee Southern, mentioned smaller congregations must be judged on their very own metrics.

“We’re asking rural church buildings to be extra like massive and suburban church buildings they usually’re not designed to be,” mentioned Stanton, creator of “Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations.”

Measures taken by bigger church buildings, corresponding to growing the variety of small teams or attracting extra youth, is probably not possible in these communities, Stanton mentioned. However these congregations can nonetheless maintain their very own, with part-time leaders or volunteers.

Nevertheless, the FACT survey finds it’s midsize church buildings with an attendance of 100 to 250 which have declined essentially the most precipitously — the median decline was 12%.

“These congregations had been constructed within the post-World Warfare II period,” mentioned Thumma. “They’re struggling to have sufficient employees to fulfill all people. They usually don’t have all of the packages of bigger church buildings.”

Congregations with 1,500 folks in attendance had been finest capable of keep away from decline; 71% of these massive church buildings grew over the previous 5 years. That will recommend many individuals are abandoning midsized congregations for megachurches which have full-time clergy, higher monetary and bodily assets and a variety of ages and races amongst members.

"Growing Presence of Multiracial Congregations" Graphic courtesy of Faith Communities Today

“Rising Presence of Multiracial Congregations” Graphic courtesy of Religion Communities Right now

One brilliant spot within the examine: Congregations have gotten extra racially various. In 2000 solely 12% of congregations had been multiracial. Within the newest survey, the determine climbed to 25%.

The survey outlined multiracial congregations as these the place 20% or extra of contributors should not a part of the dominant racial group.

Many researchers are actually investigating if racial variety additionally equals integration in relationships — or if persons are merely attending church collectively. Earlier analysis has additionally discovered elevated variety is one-directional.

“It’s nonetheless within the route of predominantly white church buildings changing into much less predominantly white, mentioned Chaves. “It’s little or no within the different route. There’s not a giant improve in variety in predominantly Black church buildings.”

RELATED: Study: Multiracial Methodist churches draw and keep more people than their white counterparts


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