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For The CRG Created For The CRG
Good News and Bad News about Congregational Decline

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.

Unreported pain

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.

Vibrant congregations

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.

For additional information, check out these resources: Facing Decline, Finding Hope; the National Congregations Study; Finishing With Grace; Faith and Leadership.

For The CRG Created For The CRG
FACT Gearing Up for 2020 Survey

The new Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey is in the works. The survey officially launches next year, and FACT is in the process of finalizing participants now. Faith groups and denominations will survey their congregations early next year. Take a look at the list of groups that have agreed to participate and ensure that your group is represented. If your religious body or denomination isn’t listed, you can contact FACT at sbrown@hartsem.edu to inquire about partnership opportunities.


FACT is an interfaith research organization that provides key information on a range of subjects relating to congregational life in America. Previous FACT surveys resulted in relevant findings about conflict, outreach, young adults, spiritual vitality and more.


The goal for this new report is to survey 20,000 congregations in 2020.


book
The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline
This resource uses the magazine The Christian Century as a metaphor to talk about the strengths and challenges of the American Protestant church.
For The CRG Created For The CRG
American Latinos Congregating Apart from Catholicism: A Conversation with Gerardo Martí

Center for Congregations CRG Director Aaron Spiegel spoke with Gerardo Martí about his recent CRG guest blog post. Gerardo is a professor, researcher and author of Latino Protestants in America. Below are highlights of their conversation.


Aaron: What are the primary motivators for American Latinos moving from Catholicism to Protestantism?


Gerardo: Roman Catholic observers have long been aware of what has been labeled “the defection” of Latinos away from Catholicism to Protestantism. It isn’t new. The esteemed Catholic sociologist Andrew M. Greely documented mass defections in the late 1980s. When pressed for an explanation, he speculated that the appeal for Latinos switching to evangelicalism was based in their upward economic mobility: Protestant churches were potent symbols of middle-class respectability. Current research is not willing to posit such massive changes to a single determining factor like this.


It is also important to note that more recent immigrants from Central and South America arrive into the United States already Protestant. That means more Protestant churches are now available to join. These same Latinos may have found themselves in Catholic churches in the past, but now more immigrants find (and are willing to start) local churches based on Protestant beliefs and liturgy.


Also significant, we cannot ignore the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse among priests that has hung over the American Catholic church, which has disillusioned many to leave Catholicism. Furthermore, many find it difficult to relate to priests in America, clergy who are less likely to be of Hispanic ancestry in comparison with local Latino Protestant pastors who tend to be indigenous, speaking similar dialects, often coming from the same region and sharing similar cultural experiences.


Additionally, our research finds the pursuit of more intimate and more intense spiritual experience to be important. In our interviews, Latinos say they were eager for the deeper spiritual nourishment they discovered in Protestant churches, finding their priests to be dismissive of their desires and questions, while discovering excitement and zeal in a local “Christian” church. More than one respondent simply said, “I found God here.”


Finally, the greater independence of many Protestant churches translates into greater organizational agility and adaptability to their local environment. Even when a particular church is unable to change, it is increasingly likely that Latinos can find a newer church designed to appeal to new sensibilities. This means that the competition among churches is not just between Catholic and Protestant but among Protestants themselves.


Aaron: You stated in your blog post that Pew Research reported that half of all American Latinos will be Protestant by 2030. Why is this significant?


Gerardo: The dramatic increase in Latino Protestantism is largely unanticipated. Considering that Latinos in America are stigmatized as “foreigners” in far too many places in the United States (as is evident in our political controversies regarding illegal immigration), this may result in a renegotiation of both the nature of Protestantism in America as well as the understanding of American Latinidad.


For example, Protestantism is traditionally the mainstream culture of white Americans, serving as a base for promoting privilege and status. The increase of Latino American Protestants may more fully emphasize the racialization of “white Christianity.”


Also, religion among Latinos has often been assumed to be steeped in Catholicism. Approaching Latino religiosity apart from Catholicism can be disorienting for religious leaders who simply have not known Latinos as Protestants. In addition, because the broad Latino community retains strong social and cultural ties to Catholicism, the increase of Protestants can be the source of tensions among family and friends when approaching the nature of the sacred through life-cycle events like weddings and funerals and church-based social events (festivals, holidays, parties, etc.) intended to reach larger social networks.


Aaron: Are American Catholic leaders trying to figure out why they aren’t “automatically” getting Latinos? Is there something “to be done” to change the trend?


Gerardo: All churches whose ancestry are Anglo-European (as well as Asian, i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) tend to lump all “Latino” ancestries together, and Catholic parishes often segregate congregations within a single church to serve particular ethnic groups. However, even when services are conducted or translated into Spanish, the idioms, illustrations, pronunciations, and vocabularies between Hispanic groups can be vastly different. Appointing a Mexican-American minister does not automatically create connections to Cuban, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran people in their neighborhoods. Similarly, relational connections — the family and friends people most likely lead new guests in their churches — do not necessarily overlap between various Latino ethno-racial groups.


Beyond the challenge of outreach to different cultural groups within the general category of Latino, all churches are challenged to be self-reflective regarding their willingness to be truly hospitable to groups that are socially distant from their own. I would caution church leaders against merely setting up another segregated ministry. While I commend congregations that support separate Latino ministries, it is worth considering further the extent a congregation can more fully welcome and incorporate Latinos (and other racial/ethnic groups) into the ongoing ministries of the congregation. While pastor and paid staff may be friendly initially, the successful incorporation of Latinos into obviously non-Latino settings takes a deliberate effort. Lay leaders and regular members must be willing to take into their lives new relationships.


Leaders are challenged to evaluate their own ministry: How wide are the arms of love that can be extended in your congregation? How welcoming is your church to “the alien, the stranger, and the foreigner”? Does your church have intentional boundary-crossers who regularly reach out to those who are unfamiliar and culturally distinct?


The Catholic Church shows pastoral commitment and concern for Latinos, yet the Church would benefit from even more aggressive outreach toward recruitment of Latino men and women from a variety of ancestral backgrounds for lay and full-time ministry.


Aaron: Some readers may associate Protestant with mainline denominations, yet you imply high numbers of Latinos connected with evangelical and Pentecostal movements. Is there a breakdown and explanation of the divisions within Protestantism?


Gerardo: To avoid confusion, our research uses the label “Protestantism” to signify all religious orientations that base themselves from the stream of congregational movements after the Reformation. Today, the data on Latino Protestants captures three distinct groups: Pentecostal – characterized by an emphasis on healing, tongues, and related ministries centered on the infusion of the Holy Spirit; Evangelical – non-Pentecostal churches that emphasize preaching, bible study, adult baptism, and emotive worship; and Mainline churches with affiliations to historic denominational structures like Methodism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, etc.


In terms of proportional representation, the most recent data indicate that the total population of Latino Protestants consists of a little more than one-third being Pentecostal, a little more than one-third Evangelical, and a little less than one-third Mainline. The dip in Mainline affiliation may have to do with the historic absence of significant Latino membership among these churches and the lack of educational credentials qualifying Latino leaders for ordination. In addition, it has been more difficult to establish new Mainline congregations at the pace at which Latino-centered Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations are being established, especially with the added requirements assumed for ordination in Mainline churches.


Aaron: Did the Latino community bring their high commitment and participation in church with them as immigrants or is this an American Latino phenomenon?


Gerardo: We are still working to understand the exceptionally high rates of religious intensity among Latino Protestants. Certainly, part of their congregational fervor has to do with the momentum of church centrality and involvement already cultivated in their countries of origin. Even so, Latino Pentecostals and Evangelicals are generally much more involved in their church communities than those from the Mainline. In addition, most Latino-centered Protestant churches are smaller and therefore require higher involvement among volunteers and lay leaders to sustain their ministries over time.


Aaron: Are there unique challenges for Latino churches that aren’t being addressed by denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations? How can organizations like the Center for Congregations be most helpful to the Latino community?


Gerardo: The challenges for sustaining the continued vitality of the Latino Protestant churches in America are many. They include:




  • Availability and affordability of pastoral training: Latino Protestants mirror their secular counterparts in having lower levels of college attendance and graduation. Therefore, the great majority of Latino pastors committed to ministry lack the educational background necessary to be admitted to seminaries. Consequently, they also lack the means to afford classes and study materials. In response to this situation, a variety of local Bible institutes have emerged, and many seminary and divinity schools in the United States have made generous arrangements to accept Bible institute credit to provide a pathway for graduate education. In addition, some larger churches and theological schools are expanding to provide training in ministry explicitly oriented toward Latinos. Denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations can further fund, mentor, and organizationally bridge opportunities for more formal pastoral training.


  • Financial pressures for salaries, rent, buildings, technology, and ministry infrastructure: Because Latino ministries do not usually include contributions from wealthy donors, church leaders are constantly pressed to meet the financial requirements to build ministry programs and serve the needs of their people. Even when aligned with larger denominational structures, the stories we hear from leaders in the field reveal how difficult it can be to obtain funding. Latino leaders believe priorities for Latino ministry to be quite low. Unfortunately, Latino ministries also suffer from the stigma and prejudice that is all too common among white-dominant communities. Latinos are sidelined, with their issues being accorded less importance. With Latino persistent population growth, the infrastructure for Latino ministry is an area of investment worth considering for the future of Christianity in America.


  • Latinos administratively lumped together, often with other “ethnic” ministries: Latino groups desire to have their own distinctive pastoral and congregational needs met. Yet lack of understanding or poor administration can often leave all “ministries of color” combined with little regard for significant distinctions in their histories and needs. In one organization, we found that all ethno-racial ministries, also joined with women’s ministries, placed under a single department head. Latino migrations are complicated, resulting in practical pastoral differences. With some reflection, church leaders would quickly realize that such administrative streamlining leaves important differences ignored and therefore unaddressed.


  • Absence of respect or authority in decision making within larger structures and networks: Latino leaders bring a great deal of passion and experience to their ministries. We have met many who began their ministries while still teenagers. Yet, their ministry experiences are often ignored and their input rarely sought. These Latino leaders feel like perpetual guests when participating in larger structures and networks of ministry, leaving their own distinctive perspectives and concerns ignored. Similarly, too few Latino pastors and consultants have attained status as “experts,” leaving a highly skewed and incomplete perspective coming from the few who have made it into elite spaces of influence. While non-Latino leaders should make an effort to be more inclusive, the few Latino church leaders with influence should not hoard their visibility and make an equally strong effort to expand the public influence of their colleagues and peers.


Latinos are firmly established in the American spiritual landscape. Attention to their spiritual development should be a priority. Of course, with commitment, planning, and foresight, the challenges listed above can be addressed with practical initiatives centered on further development of pastoral leadership. I trust that concerted effort, consensual planning, and a host of brilliant minds can certainly meet these challenges moving forward.

Tags: Religion In America, Contemporary Trends, Latino, Latinex, Multi Cultural, Ethnic, Diversity Race, Protestantism, Catholicism


web resource
Interfaith Toolkit: Engage Your Neighbors
This web resource offers an Interfaith Toolkit, which offers engagement strategies, such as identifying concerns you hold in common, and exploring similarities and differences on a practical collection of six faith communities: Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity.
book
To Serve This Present Age: Social Justice Ministries in the Black Church
This practical guide for congregations starting social justice ministries provides a model to follow along with case studies to illustrate how the model can work in various settings. This resource also covers communication, community asset mapping, and reviews various justice strategies.
For The CRG Created For The CRG
Your Congregation is Not in Decline

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.

The numbers

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.

The story

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.

book
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World
This resource serves as an entry into interfaith conversation, using interfaith reflection as a way to reclaim the best of the Christian faith while honoring differences with others.
web resource
Religious Landscape Survey
This website contains abundant information culled from the Pew Forum’ s work on the U.S. Religious Landscape. Based on interviews with more than 35,000 adults, this research specifies the religious makeup, religious beliefs and practices of the American public.
article
Something More
This visually-engaging report highlights 10 innovative faith communities to spark conversation about transforming religion in America. It was written as a follow up to How We Gather .
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