Church pews are looking emptier, U.S. survey shows

Traditional churches are struggling

CINCINNATI -- If you go to church, you've likely noticed that your congregation hasn't been growing. It’s also likely that fewer than 100 people attended last weekend's services.

That’s one of several conclusions in “American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving,” a report released recently about a survey of 32,000 randomly selected churches from all denominations and faith traditions.

Faith Communities Today, a multi-faith coalition that researches church life, has conducted the survey every five years since the year 2000. Last year, 4,436 congregations responded, including Tri-State congregations First Presbyterian Church Glendale, Anderson Township Faith United Church of Christ and First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati.

The report’s overall conclusion: “American congregations enter the second decade of the new century a bit less healthy than they were at the turn of the century.”

For the first time in this survey, the percentage of congregations with fewer than 100 at weekend worship exceeded 50 percent: It rose to 58 percent in 2015 from 49 percent in 2010. Also, median attendance dropped from 129 in 2005 to 105 in 2010 and only 80 in 2015.

There are also fewer growing congregations. In 2005, nearly 58 percent said their congregation had grown 2 percent or more in the past five years, versus 50 percent in 2010 and 45 percent last year.

Steven Garstad, pastor of First Presbyterian Church Glendale

First Presbyterian lands in that group. It now has 45-50 regular attendees, interim pastor Steven Garstad said, significantly fewer than a few years ago. Some members left the church because of conflicts with previous pastors, he said, and young families left because the church didn’t have enough members to offer programs for young people and children.

“Many congregations still live out the ‘Field of Dreams’ theology: If they build it, the people will come,” Garstad said. “There was a time when that was true. … But social values and culture have changed. Many claim they are spiritual but not religious. They don’t need to be part of an institution to live out their spiritual identity.”

Bill Connor, pastor of Anderson Township Faith United Church of Christ

Faith United also has fewer than 100 weekend attendees, and it’s struggling financially, to the point where the pastor has suggested partnering with another church, something the congregation is reluctant to do, said church board president Bill Connor.

The congregation can’t seem to attract young families, he said, mainly because young people are so busy and because the congregation hasn’t addressed the needs of the millennial generation. Millennials want to participate, but they don’t want to work on projects that last more than a couple of months.

“We tend to grind through things,” he said. “Partially from history and, frankly, because we talk too much. We don’t get things done as fast as we should.”

First Unitarian, on the other hand, with weekend attendance of about 200, is growing “by tiny bits,” said pastor Sharon Dittmar. However, growth in numbers doesn’t mean growth in revenue, she said. Older members tend to give more than younger, she said, and for every older member who dies, the church needs several new young members to replace the older member’s giving.

Sharon Dittmar, pastor of First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati

"And as the middle class shrinks," she said, "congregations struggle.”

That fact is reflected in the survey results: The median church budget fell from $150,000 in 2010 to $125,000 in 2015. The percentage of congregations with full-time, paid senior clergy fell from 71 in 2010 to 62 in 2015.

When a congregation gets involved, growth happens. Among growing congregations, 90 percent said the laity was heavily involved in recruiting new people – only 35 percent said not at all. Laity willingness to get involved is “one of the key reality checks in any congregational growth strategy,” the report said.

Garstad, who said he plans to share the report with his church, plans to highlight that part in fluorescent orange. “That’s the very nature of the message I’m trying to put out there,” he said.

Faith United also has real difficulty getting enough lay people to do the work of the church, Connor said. He’s working hard just to get more volunteers to count the offering, so that the same people don’t have to stay an hour after church every Sunday.

Because of its long history of involvement with social issues, First Unitarian offers many ways for its congregation to get involved. Missions it supports include tutoring in South Avondale, partnering with a food pantry in Avondale and speaking out against gun violence.

“We are often out doing something,” Dittmar said.

As a church with a very liberal theology, First Unitarian is an outlier among most of the congregations in the survey, of which fewer than 8 percent said they were somewhat liberal or very liberal. And the percentage of congregations that participated in social justice issues fell from 48 percent in 2005 to 44 percent in 2015.

First Unitarian's unique identity helps differentiate it from other churches, which seems to be important for growth as well. Of growing churches represented in the survey, 58 percent said they were very different from other congregations in their area.

“People do church-shop. You can expect that as a congregation,” Dittmar said.

Every congregation needs to adapt to things like changes in the style of worship people prefer, he noted, but it’s hard because many members want stability.

And the survey shows that congregations seem less willing to change – 38 percent reported their worship was very innovative in 2010, compared with 32 percent in 2015.

Although it seems ever more difficult to attract new members to churches, Garstad said, the encouraging news is that the people who do come aren’t there because it’s socially expected.

“With the decline of weekly worship from its apogee in the late ’50s or early ’60s, all congregations look at empty pews with wistful nostalgia,” he said. “But the good news is, if you survey the people that are there, they are seeking God … not because they want to be seen in the right place.”

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