By Laura Schoenfelder
A report by Faith Communities Today has been summarizing research and findings of religious trends in the United States since 2000. A large focus area of the study has been on that of small congregations and large congregations growing or shrinking. This last year of the study has been particularly important because of the effect the pandemic brought on attending church.
Around 15,000 religious community members across numerous faith traditions and denominations were studied. The Faith Communities Today report said “the majority of congregations are growing older, smaller, and by many measures, less vital”. The average number of senior attenders has risen 5 percent since 2008. Those in the leadership roles are also growing older along with their congregation, with the average age of the leader being 57 years old.
The report notes that congregations with older pastors and a third or more senior attendants are more likely to be an older, established church. These findings also correlate to a lack of desire for change or to look for new members and have not grown in the past couple of years.
The lack of young adults is neither a problem nor solution to a shrinking church, as is having an older pastor or senior members, the study is quick to note. Most America’s congregations have grown smaller, with an average of 65 members attending weekly service.
This is down by over 50 percent from 137 in 2000. The study reports that this means at least half of the faith communities in the country have 65 or less in weekly attendance.
By looking back five years prior, the findings showed that it was the medium sized congregations that were shrinking.
The study also highlights advantages and challenges for the different congregational sizes. The smaller congregations had a higher level or member commitment, participation, and
were more likely to give more money and volunteer more.
Larger congregations typically have bigger budget expenses, increased use of technology, and a wider range of programs for the community.
Faith Communities Today is very careful in noting that their findings and patterns in this study are not to determine whether a church will thrive, but rather it seeks to find what could be responsible for a shrinking community and suggest that religious leaders reflect on them, no matter the cause of the decline.