By Chris Gambill
Faith Communities Today has just released its introductory report from the Faith Communities Today 2015 (FACT 2015) national survey of American congregations. This is their most recent survey that originally began in 2000. The entire FACT survey series includes responses from over 32,000 randomly selected congregations from all denominations and faith traditions. I believe it is one of the very best snapshots of American congregational life available. It’s full of fascinating information and more than a few, “Wow I didn’t know that!” insights. Here’s one to whet your appetite.
The report leads off with a section entitled, “For congregations, size matters.” The first breath-catching data point shows that the number of smaller congregations (less than 100 in worship attendance) has risen dramatically in the last five years–from 49.1 percent of congregations to 57.9 percent. This means that for the first time (at least since 2000) well over half of all American congregations have less than 100 in worship on weekends. While having more smaller congregations is not necessarily bad, what is disturbing is that in addition, median worship attendance has fallen from 129 in 2005, to only 80 in 2015. The final data gut-punch in this section shows that these same smaller congregations (100 or fewer attendees in worship) are only half as likely to be “highly spiritually vital” (reflecting a specific set of measures they used).
So what does this all mean? In simplest terms, there are a growing number of smaller congregations, with likely declining in attendance overall, and struggling more than larger congregations to foster the kind of spiritual climate they want and need to thrive.
The big question this raises for me is “Who will help them?” Being a smaller congregation usually means there are fewer financial and other resources. Judicatories and denominations are, for the most part, also shrinking and have less capacity to help. Despite the shrinking resource pool, the Center for Congregational Health will continue to serve all churches. This has always been a core component of our mission and we work hard to find ways to make our services available to all congregations–regardless of their size or resources.