In October 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that, based on new data, 19.5% of Americans register no religious affiliation. This is an almost five percent increase over the last five years.
Congregations are struggling, in part, because the religious lives of individuals in the United States are changing, according to the Pew Forum Study.
These numbers indicate that congregations are at risk. If fewer Americans report no faith affiliation, then fewer Americans are likely to be affiliated with congregations. Congregations are closing, some estimate about 3500 annually across the country. Surely this number is not a fixed figure. After all, it is also true that some reports indicate that more congregations open annually than close. Regardless, the general news we receive is that congregational life is in decline.
The same Pew study reports that 76% of Americans say that daily prayer is an important part of their lives, a percent that is unchanged over the last 25 years.
The tension between these two statistics – the decrease in religious affiliation and the steady practice of prayer – represent a peculiarly positive reality. The faith life of many Americans is more ambiguous than can be explained in a survey.
Furthermore, the life of any particular congregation – that is, your congregation – is more rich, complex and religious than is captured in many contemporary studies of United States congregations.
My experience with any particular congregation is almost always positive. Every day I observe congregations with vibrant worship, effective mission and strong religious education. For every sign of congregational decline observed through national data, there exists an exception.
For example, many researchers share data that illustrates decline in worship attendance among mainline congregations. Not too long ago, I preached on Stewardship Sunday at a mainline congregation that was absolutely full with more than 400 people. Did I mention it was Stewardship Sunday?!
What explains such exceptions to the social science data?
All who provide support services to congregations, pay heed. Our view of the world is formed by the questions we ask. If one asks social survey questions, one receives general population data. However, if your questions are asset based and focused on the singular, local congregation rather than on a conglomerate of congregations, you are likely to get rich, powerful stories.
I love the old New Yorker cartoon that pictures a man sitting in the examination room with his doctor. The physician holds up an X-ray and states confidently, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with you that what’s right with you can’t cure.”
For more information about congregational trends, see the ARDA or search Religion in America on the CRG.
For many, the condition of United States congregations and denominations is worse than reported by sociologists. In sundry settings, the decline is now irreversible. See Jim Collins’ research about the irreversible decline of other once strong institutions, How the Mighty Fall.
It is upsetting to be the one who has to tell a congregation that a full time clergy leader is no longer affordable. It is upsetting to be a denominational representative reporting that the judicatory camp is closing. It is one thing to read a statistic. It is another to be the statistic. The social science research does not capture that pain. “My congregation is going to close. This feels so sad.”
Addressing the grief
There is anticipatory grief related to the decline. The grief is experienced by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. There is also loss that has occurred because of the natural desire to delay the deep pain that goes with closing a congregation. That is, the closing of the congregation has been hindered partially to fend off the understandable pain of actual loss. Perhaps this is inevitable. There may be no other way than the long way. There is much actual loss that has occurred that has not been lamented by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. We are not good at holding loss when it involves congregations. How could we be?
When decline is inevitable, let’s attend respectfully to grief so that the pain is not needlessly prolonged.
If there is any truth that the condition of congregations and denominations is worse than reported, it is also true that, in many settings, there is inspiring vitality.
For every sociological data point about congregational decline, there are exceptions to the rule. This is an observable reality. For example, walk through the front door of the new congregation hosting 200 worshipers the average age of 22. Another exception is the rural congregation in the middle of nowhere (well, almost nowhere) experiencing a 30% increase in attendance over three years.
These vibrant experiences are not commonly captured in social science surveys. Many thriving congregations are new. They aren’t included in the researchers’ databases. Also, their stories do not fit a normative pattern of problem and then solution. The stories are personal. The stories are idiosyncratic. They are signs of God’s free Spirit. They are about new creations. They are signs of leadership courage and maturity. Such exceptions often are dependent on a leader’s particular charisma and thus not replicable.
Sharing the stories
The story of such exceptions should be shared more widely. I visited a brand new urban congregation last year which welcomed 40 people in worship. This year, the average attendance at that congregation is 140. Besides worship, their primary activity is befriending the homeless. Everything they plan, everything they do, involves the question, “How can we include our homeless friends?”
There is plenty of bad news about the decline of congregational life in the United States. But there are even more stories we haven’t yet heard about congregations that are flourishing.