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Survey: Religious landscape shows need for change in American congregations

Every 10 years, the Faith Communities Today survey of somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 congregations, takes the pulse of American organized religion with information from someone familiar with the inner workings of the community, usually a faith leader. The Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership, a group of religious researchers and faith leaders representing more than 25 faith groups, conducts these studies.

Between the larger studies, the Partnership, which works alongside the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary, conducts one or two smaller studies. American Congregations 2015 is the overview report of  the latest Faith Communities Today study, with roughly 4,500 congregations participating in the survey.

David Roozen, Director of the Partnership and author of this report, sees a gradual but steady decline in attendance at worship, self-reported spiritual vitality, budgets, and programming, as well as a higher average member age across the board.

“It's not total collapse, but it's slow erosion,” said Roozen.

He traces the last discernible uptick to the introduction of contemporary worship, but that growth, he says, has plateaued in the last five years.

“There's really not any evident next big thing that could stem things,” he said. “But that doesn't mean there isn't something bubbling.”

For Lovett Weems, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary and Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, there is an explanation which doesn’t seem so daunting.

“The definition of regular attendance has changed,” he said. “When people say they attend church regularly, that used to mean three or four times a month. It probably today means one or two times a month. There are some churches that have started tracking not only their average weekly attendance but their monthly reach. I saw the figures from one church where over a seven-month period, the number of individuals that attended at least once during the month stayed fairly consistent but the average weekly attendance continued to go down.”

Weems also cites a movement away from rural areas where churches were originally established as a partial explanation for why many small churches are not growing, but it doesn’t stop there.

“Those churches were located where people were at that time and most of the population growth is not taking place where these longstanding churches are, but also there's a tendency in the early years of the church to be very connected to its community. As time goes by it tends to become less knowledgeable and less connected to its community. It's very counterintuitive,” he said.

As part of each Faith Communities Today Study, focused reports explore important findings within the larger survey. Current reports explore young adult ministries and religious education programs. Its next  report will probe more deeply into the idea of spiritual vitality, hoping to get a more specific idea of what the term means within a congregation and what contributes to the health of a faith community. So far, one element of spiritual vitality is clear.

“Innovative and inspirational worship is hugely important for both growth and spiritual vitality,” said Roozen.

He admits that it can be hard to quantify exactly what makes up innovative and inspiration worship. There is no fool proof approach to spiritual vitality.

The study shows a direct link between numerical growth and spiritual vitality.

“Some churches have tended to act as if they're not interested in growth because they really want to focus on spiritual things, when what this research says is: those things go together,” says Weems. “The very things that lead to spiritual vitality will lead to growth, the very things that make a church attractive to people are the things that are helping people grow,” he said.

Another important element of congregational health, according to Roozen, is the ability to embrace change, and thrive in the aftermath.

“Congregations that say they are doing well with change, have the ability to change, and that they are open to change are much more likely to be vital and growing than those that aren’t,” he said.

However, this study saw a slight drop in willingness to change from the 2010 survey.

“When you start focusing on preserving what is then you're just keeping processes going rather than understanding that the church is always on a pilgrimage that requires both continuity and change,” said Weems.

One impetus for change may be a clear direction.

“Those that are growing are not those that see that they're the only way, but they do believe that God has given them a particular vision,” said Weems. “That means that there is something other than just maintaining the status quo that is the driving power behind what they do.”

For many congregations, change has painful consequences.

“Another thing we know crushes any kind of positive movement in congregations is serious conflict. Change often produces conflict,” said Roozen.

But congregations who do self-report navigating change well seem to have less serious conflict (defined in this study as circumstances in which members of the congregation have left or withheld money, or a leader has been forced out) even though they might have slightly more conflict they don’t define as serious.

“It seems like those congregations that really thrive and grow manage change, and part of managing change is managing the inevitable conflict and loss,” said Roozen.

One of the most alarming parts of the study, for Weems, is the downward trends in multifaith engagement. The percentage of congregations reporting a community service activity with another faith tradition in the past year is down to 15 percent from 20.8 percent in 2010 and 37.5 percent in 2005.

“That’s a very disturbing trend because just at the time when there needs to be more multi-faith cooperation and engagement that's dropping significantly,” he said. “This reflects somewhat what's going on within the political culture of the United States where there may be less tolerance, more division, but that's a significant decline in the last ten years.”

For Roozen, the capacity for change begins with faith leaders.

“We live in unsettled times and we know that the old habits aren't working well. To get to the new habits that might work requires change. The data clearly shows that that's the main route, but the data also shows that there's a lot of resistance to [change]. That puts a lot of pressure on the leadership who are there to inspire, to comfort, and to change,” he said.

But without significant change, many of these religious leaders may be comforting their congregations to an early grave.






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