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The American Congregation 2015: Thriving and Surviving

The American Congregation 2015: Thriving and Surviving

Reviewed by Rev. Alan Mead

Have you wondered lately what in the world is happening in congregational life and mission? There are continuing reports of decline, both in numbers of people and in resources, with an increasing number of people describing themselves as being spiritual but not religious. With the help of major Canadian and American surveys we have been given helpful snapshots giving us data to help us understand societal trends. But what is going on in the local congregation? What is working and what isn’t? And for us who specialize in transition ministry, how can we use these resources to better help congregations through major times of change?

Faith Communities Today 2015 (FACT 2015) recently released its latest report of their 2015 survey of American congregations, entitled “The American Congregation 2015: Thriving and Surviving.” The report was written by David A. Roozen, Retired Director, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research and current of Director, Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership (CCSP). The FACT surveys began in 2000 with random sampling of over 10,000 American congregations with the questionnaires completed by a key informant, typically the senior pastor. The entire series, with reports in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2015 includes responses from over 32,000 randomly selected congregations from all denominations and faith traditions.

The latest survey “focuses on an initial look at core trends across the survey series and a first look at new sets of questions introduced in the 2015 Survey, with several focused reports to be released early next year.” An intro statement to the major, decadal report states, “American congregations enter the second decade of a new century a bit less healthy than they were at the turn of the century.” The 2015 report “might be characterized as more of the same, but a little less so and with a few interesting twists.”

The report is full of useful, sometimes encouraging and, even fascinating information. There are twelve sections, from “For congregations, size matters,” to the concluding section, “The continuing erosion of vitality and growth not withstanding, when all is said and done, more congregations are thriving than struggling.” In between are eye-opening indications of many realities in congregational life today.

Some examples: In 2005 46.6% of congregations had a Sunday worshiping attendance under 100 and in 2015 that figure is 57.9%, with a median worship attendance in 2005 of 129 but a drop to 80 in 2015. Now for an interesting finding, of those congregations 37% with an attendance of over 100 report a high spiritual vitality while that percentage drops to 19.4% in congregations under 100. Is this difference simply a matter of having less organizational and programmatic resources? Do you need more people to have a higher spiritual vitality?

The FACT 2015 report continues looking at growth in the following sections, “Growth Matters: For Some Theologically, For All Organizationally,” there are fewer growing congregations, down to 47.9%; but of those that indicated they had spiritual vitality, 35.8% are growing; but where a lack of spiritual vitality was indicated, 19.1% are actually in decline. Another observation in this section is that growing congregations engage young adults better, with the survey indicating that  congregations with a membership of at least 15% young adults that 33.7% grew 2% or more in the past five years. Growth Matters, But What Matters For Growth,” and “What A Congregation Can Do For Growth.” The answers that emerged seem obvious but are worth noting: “Serious conflict crushes growth,” with a higher number of congregations experiencing some conflict growing than those congregations experiencing no conflict in the past five years; but the least growth was seen in congregations that had experienced serious conflict. Second observation: “Get your laity involved in recruiting new people” with a whopping 90.1% of congregations that stated they had a lot of involvement growing more than 2% versus 34.7% where laity were not at all involved. Third observation, which is right along with a modern marketing society where church, faith and practice are choices among many: “Distinguish yourself from other congregations in your community.”

Other observations that interested me in the above sections were the the graphs that showed fewer growing congregations, that growth and spiritual vitality go together, with growing congregations engaging young adults better.

Some “Good News: The Downtrend in Financial Health Has Reversed” but a caution is that “while congregations may be feeling more positive about their financial situation it is because they have become more comfortable doing with less rather than because they have more to invest in their ministry,” with a drop in median budget from $150,000 to $125,000 although one way that more congregations seem to be coping is by renting space to another congregation or school, with 32.7% of congregations reporting that they receive rent for use of space.

Of particular interest to those who specialize in transition ministry, regarding worship there is less willingness to change, with less innovation in worship and a seeming plateau in contemporary worship. And just as in every area of society, use of technology is increasing, with 52.9% of congregations reporting that they use visual projection and other forms of modern technology in worship.

Perhaps connected with budget realities there is a decline in member oriented programming, although the survey shows that of congregations that have at least one program specialty have higher attendance growth and higher vitality. Another trend is that there is a slight shift toward being very conservative theologically. Along with this trend, there is a decline in emphasis on social justice issues and less multi faith engagement continuing after a surge following 9/11.

Young adult ministry is not a priority for a majority of congregations where “only two in ten congregations have young adult ministry as a main or top priority,” but of those who make it a priority, 41.4% show a thriving young adult ministry.

Not only is there a decline in willingness to embrace change in worship; but there is a corresponding decline in willingness to meet new challenges, perhaps connected with such rapid and profound social and cultural change. The survey shows that congregations can find change to be a good thing in unsettled times when they have a high vitality and keep conflict to a manageable level, addressing and resolving the conflict before it becomes serious.

For those of us who specialize in a ministry that engages congregational life during times of profound and major change, as one pastor leaves and assessment of identity, heritage and resources begins and occupies much of the energy of a congregation, it may be wise to heed the results of the past 15 years of these FACT congregational surveys. I have heard more than one interim say it is a time to shake things up and help the congregation experience different styles in worship and leadership. The survey should help us to be cautious with unnecessary change, and to encourage focus on that which builds spiritual vitality, with energy and commitment continuing for young adult needs and ministry as a priority.

Another implication for those of us who are intentional interims is that there are fewer congregations that can afford the skill and training level of a trained and experienced interim. Helping congregations with less resources to be served by the ministry skill levels that can help them thrive as they transition to new leadership and new identity must remain a challenge that we in IMN are willing to engage and accept. I believe we will continue to find ways to serve and perhaps to redefine interim ministry with a growing number of smaller congregations. It is a wonderful time to be in ministry, especially interim ministry!

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