American Congregations 2008 was released on Thursday at the Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting. My good friends Scott Thumma and David Roozen from the Hartford Institute of Religion Research are key players in this project which I participated in as a member of the steering committee. David wrote the report and Scott presented the study to the journalists. A number of other people also played essential roles, and we are all on the way toward a much larger study in 2010. It is part of the FACT series; Faith Communities Today.
The FACT series began with a major survey of congregations of all faiths in 2000 and so it gives the chance to see trends in local church life over the years. Most of these trends are currently going down hill. Most congregations report that attendance is declining, not increasing. Most congregations report that their finances are in worse shape. Most congregations report that spiritual vitality is down. More congregations say that most of their members are uncertain about the mission of their church. Many congregations have an aging membership, with fewer young adults.
Several other major studies in the last year or so have reported findings that show that a declining number of Americans are actively involved with organized religion. The fastest-growing segments are people who either have no interest in religion, including many who are very interested in spirituality, and those who are interested in less-structured religion such as nondenominational churches and informal groups that meet in homes, coffee shops, etc. This new study tends to confirm those trends and show the impact on the congregation's across the country.
There are exceptions to the general decline. Congregations with very strong leadership, a clear mission and a willingness to make changes in the way they do worship and ministry are able to defy the downward trends. Two other behaviors that correlate with growth and vitality include active hospitality extended to newcomers and strong support for volunteers.
You can download the report at https://fact.hartsem.edu/products/index.html. A more detailed version with a lot of additional information will be coming later in the fall.