National Congregation Study provides a snapshot of U.S. churches
by Bob Smietana
Churches in America are a study in contrasts.
The average church is small, but more people attend large churches. While some churches are trading choirs for drums and guitars, traditional worship is alive and well. Churches are slowly becoming more diverse, but a majority are still segregated on Sunday mornings.
Those are among some of the recent findings of the National Congregation Study. The study of churchgoers and congregations has been overseen since 1998 by Mark Chaves of Duke Divinity School. Using data from the General Social Survey, Chaves and other researches polled 1,694 Americans who attend church at least once a year. They also interviewed leaders at 1,331 congregations.
Here are six trends they found:
Most churches are small and have few resources
The typical American congregation is small, with a median weekend attendance of about 76 people. That’s down from a median attendance of 90 in 2007. The average church usually has two or more services a week (62 percent). Nearly 1 in 4 (24 percent) congregations are non-denominational.
The average annual budget is about $85,000. Most congregations (84 percent) own their own building. About half (45 percent) have one full-time minister, while about a third (36 percent) have no full-time staff. About half of the ministers (49) have a graduate degree, while 1 in 5 has only a high school education.
Sixty percent of smaller congregations are female. Three in 10 congregation members have a household income of less than $35,000. Less than a third (30 percent) live in households with two-parents and children.
More people attend big churches
Most churchgoers attend a church with a median attendance of 400 people and an annual budget of $479,000. Almost all (93 percent) of those congregations own their own building. Fifteen percent of large churches are non-denominational.
These churches have more clergy, with better education than the average congregation. More than half (56 percent) have two or more full-time ministers. Nearly 3 out of 4 of their senior ministers have a graduate degree.
As for the congregation, 60 percent are female. Overall, attendees of large churches tend to be better off than those at smaller churches. One in five (20 percent) people have a household income under $35,000, compared to 30 percent of small church attendees.
Large church attendees also are more likely to live in a nuclear family. About half (45 percent) are from households with two parents and children at home.
The gap between small and large churches worries Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
Most people go to churches that are larger and relatively healthy. So, their experience of church life is mainly positive, according to Thumma. But, overall, things don’t look as good for churches that are small and struggling.
“Most smaller churches are getting to the size where they can’t afford to keep a full-time pastor or pay their bills,” he says. “What positive impact can they have if they are struggling to make ends meet?”
If most churches are struggling, he says, that will effect denominations as well. That may lead to a decline of religious institutions nationwide.
Worship has become more informal and enthusiastic
Charismatic or Pentecostal practices—such as speaking in tongues or raising hands in worship have become more commonplace.
In 1998, a quarter of congregations (25 percent) reported speaking in tongues during worship. In 2012, that number grew to nearly 1 in 3. In fact, churches say they’re more than twice as likely to speak in tongues than to talk about political activities (15 percent).
Worshipers are more likely to raise hands in worship (59 percent) than they were in 1998 (45 percent). They’re also more likely to jump, shout, and dance spontaneously (27 percent) than in 1998 (19 percent).
Meanwhile, fewer churches have choirs (which dropped from 72 to 57 percent) or organs (down from 53 to 42 percent). A third of churches (34 percent) use drums, while 29 percent have guitars in worship.
Some things never change
Most of the basics of church services remain the same. There’s usually a sermon (97 percent), and everybody sings (96 percent) and listens to a Bible reading (98 percent). Most congregations also have a time of greeting (81 percent), while two-thirds (67 percent) of God’s people say “Amen.”
Most church services are a bit over an hour long, running about 75 minutes, while the average sermon lasts about 30 minutes. The sermons at bigger churches—the ones a typical American churchgoer hears—are a bit shorter, clocking in at 22 minutes.
About two-thirds of churches (66 percent) have pew Bibles, and most churches (69 percent) still have a written order of worship.
Congregations are slowly becoming diverse
The changes in America’s demographics are affecting congregations. There are fewer predominantly white congregations (where 80 percent of the people are white and non-Hispanic). In 1998, 72 percent of congregations were predominantly white. That number has dropped to 57 percent.
The number of predominantly Hispanic congregations grew from 1.5 percent in 1998 to 6 percent, while the number of African-American churches grew slightly from 17 percent to 21 percent.
Chaves says some former predominately white congregations have become truly multiethnic. But he also added many formerly all white congregations have begun to attract handfuls of minorities.
“That kind of shift goes under the radar,” he says. “It’s not as exciting as a church that has 30 percent diversity—but I don’t think it’s trivial.” Chaves suspects that even small steps toward more diversity will change a congregation.
Congregations like to lend a hand
Most churches (85 percent) have organized programs to help church members who are in need. About a third have programs to help the unemployed (35 percent), those dealing with drugs and alcoholism (38 percent), or those with chronic or terminal illnesses (47 percent). Almost a quarter say they help those with mental illness, while more than 27 percent help veterans.
One in 3 congregations send people to help those in need in other parts of the United States. A quarter (27 percent) sends folks to help overseas.
Have you seen these trends in your church and community?
Bob Smietana is senior writer and content editor for Facts & Trends.