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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.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. This article posted by Teresa Cooley is fascinating. I have a feeling that, once again, we are going to have to question a lot of assumptions we’ve been making over the past couple of decades. Times change; needs change; the Spirit moves the way it will.

    September 23, 2011
  2. Teresa . . . I feel as though this goes along with thoughts I’ve been having (and sharing on my own blog about needing to free ourselves from what I see as the limiting focus on “membership.” Who is a member? Someone who signed the membership book some time ago yet now hardly has any connection, or someone who is “flowing in and out” yet having real connections while they’re there? I think we need to rethink this, and a related set of issues, and your post convinces me further.

    September 23, 2011
  3. I’m intrigued and hopeful about the way of thinking about membership and mission beyond our walls and the usual definitions of membership. Thanks for adding to this dialogue, Terasa.

    Oh me oh my, you have uncapped a spring in this lover of small churches with this:

    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.

    Ten years ago, I was serving a small congregation, and many of my small-church colleagues, and the lay leaders who were the only leadership of many other small congregations, were saying that loud and clear. I’d really like to know where the opposing message was coming from, because honestly, it really held us back as individual congregations and as a movement. At the time, there were workshops available from the UUA: “Planning for Growth and Vitality in the Small Congregation.” I see that they still exist but say “contact district staff . . . ” Actually, according to the “Growing Congregations: Recent Success Stories” powerpoint that appears on the UUA website and was presented at this year’s GA, the onus is very much on the individual from the congregation: “If you are interested in seeing this program run in your district, contact your District Executive and ask that they work with you to find other congregations in the district to form a cohort of up to 6 congregations committed to growth.” Not currently serving a small congregation, I am not sure what happens when one contacts one’s district staff, but from a Google search and perusal of recent UUA annual reports, it appears that very few of our districts have made one of these workshops available even once in the past several years. Who is helping these congregations?

    Small does not mean stagnant, unhealthy, or averse to change and growth. I brought this workshop to NH/VT when I was on the District Board, and it was such a breath of fresh air when the message from almost everyone and everything else at UUA headquarters was “come back when you’re midsize and we’ll see about some resources for you,” or at best, “talk to your district staff about that”–that latter not a bad response if district staff fully understand that they are the source for small congregations, and embrace that responsibility (as I’m happy to say ours did). I was serving a small-town church–almost every church in the NH/VT district was a rural or small-town church–and it wasn’t likely that we were going to grow to 150 members in a hurry. But we were healthy and growing, and in need of services that respected our ministry to a small town and its region.

    By our definition (<150 members), half our congregations are small. Writing them off is a very bad growth strategy. I really hope that if the answer to "who helps small congregations" is still mostly "the districts," you're using your position to make that perfectly clear to the districts and asking them to report each year on their services to our small congregations.

    September 30, 2011
    • Hi Amy,
      Yes, District staff, and now regional staff, provide enormous resources to small congregations. They vary district to district because the needs are different — older New England congregations, like the one you served, have different issues than a fellowship which has been in existence for 20 years in Colorado, for example. In your former district, now the Northern New England district, there is an entire staff position, a Small Church Specialist, filled by one of best small church experts, Karen Brammer.
      There never was a strategy that declared we would not serve small congregations. When they are sources of vitality and “incarnational” growth as we call it, we nurture and laud their efforts. My article was referring more to the difference in what the “data” is telling us about congregational growth now, compared to ten years ago.
      The key concept here is vitality. The staff at the UUA partners with and celebrates congregations that are outward looking, filled with a sense of purpose and mission, and “raise a joyful noise”. These kinds of congregations can come in any size, in any place, and can have great impact on those whom they serve, and on the community that surrounds them.

      October 2, 2011
  4. I can`t aggree with you. I think other way than you. But it`s nice to read how someone else is thinking. Like it!

    April 1, 2012
  5. Enlightning information! How can I subscribe to it?

    May 18, 2012
    • Terasa Cooley #

      Subscribe to the blog? Just put your email address in the top right box.

      May 19, 2012

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