The Decline of American congregations or the Rebirth of American Religiosity?
Hartford Seminary recently released a report on the changing nature of congregational life in America. The FACT (Faith Communities Today) report outlines the findings of a ten-year study (2000 – 2010) that includes data collected from over 11,000 congregations in 120 denominations (Christian, Jewish and Muslim).
The tone of the report is decidedly gloomy: fewer people are attending congregations across denominations, despite efforts to revivify worship with contemporary music and social media connectivity. With the exception of the tiny slice of mega-churches, congregations are becoming smaller and smaller, and more report that they seem outmoded and irrelevant to modern life.
That’s the bad story. But there is a good story in here as well. It turns out that smaller congregations can often be sources of spiritual vitality. This is a completely different message than what we were taught ten years ago, when large congregations were said to have the greatest potential for growth. Instead, we now learn, that small congregations have the potential to ignite interest in unexpected groups. Some of the congregations that are reported to be most vital are those that appeal to young families and young adults. Congregations that cater to a specific ethnic group are growing, as well as those that are multicultural. Urban congregations are making a comeback. Newer congregations in newer neighborhoods are most likely to attract people.
What much of this data tells me is that American spirituality is not dead – it is just changing form. We’ve all seen the reports that show that the group of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” is the fastest group religious group today. It’s easy to make a leap of judgment from that fact to assume that American congregations are becoming increasingly irrelevant — quaint outposts of the hopelessly stodgy. But surely it is also possible to see in this data how much people still crave religious community (even if they don’t want to call it ‘religious’!) People are looking for ways to meaningfully connect to others in ways that move us beyond the typical notion of a bricks and mortar long-time institution. They are looking for religious community that matches the fluidity of their lives; that which gives them an opportunity to connect, both personally and virtually, in interactive, not passive, ways. Church buildings can still be places that people will flock to at times, but most typically now people flow in and out of congregations, looking for and finding smaller groups that offer them support and reflection and spiritual depth that sometimes cannot be found (amazingly!) within the walls of a church.
American congregational life as we may have known it, at least in stereotype, dominated by rules written and unwritten, is obviously not appealing to many anymore. And maybe this doesn’t deserve to survive. Surely if we believe in a faith that speaks to the depth of our lives, we ought to expect our faithful institutions to change along with life into new forms and venues were vitality can be found.