I admit it. There’s nothing more of a buzzkill for me than looking out on the congregation on a Sunday morning and wondering, “Where is everybody?” Attendance has been down. And people’s attendance patterns seem to have changed. Even active members are no longer there for worship every Sunday. I know I’m not alone in this. I read the email blasts of a colleague talking about the same trends in his congregation and his is the “cool church” that pulls in and does fantastic service to the urban poor! I think most of us realized that the Gallup poll, which reported for 70 years that 40% of Americans say they attended church the previous Sunday, must involve a lot of white lies. And it turns out we’d be right.
A recent article, 7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America, reports research that involved actually counting people in Catholic, Mainline and Evangelical churches. It showed “that in 2004, 17.7 percent of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend.” And the percentage of people who attend weekend worship has been decreasing, falling from 20.4% in 1990.
Catholic Church worship attendance fell by 11 percent from 2000 to 2004. Mainline church attendance dropped by 10 percent during the same period and Evangelicals had the smallest drop at 1 percent. I wonder if the decline in Evangelical churches is simply on a time delay. In more recent figures worship attendance in Southern Baptist Churches, for example, was down 6.75% from 2015 to 2016 alone.
Overall, mid-size churches of between 100 and 299 members declined in size. We’re too small to offer a wide array of programs, and not small enough so that everybody knows your name Churches founded 40 to 190 years ago were most likely to decline. There’s not a lot of comfort in these facts for the pastor of a mid-size church founded 92 years ago. One take away may be that no matter how hard we work or strive to make our churches relevant and hospitable, there are strong social forces working against us.
Yet I find myself strangely hopeful. There are some bright spots. According to the article, the smallest churches (attendance 1–49) and largest churches (2,000 or more) grew. That certainly fits with what I hear anecdotally. Church shoppers gravitate toward the wealth of programming that large churches can offer without asking for a big commitment from the average member. Small churches can draw those who are hungry for community and connection.
It may be that really small is growing in appeal. Among the “startling facts” presented in the article is a study on alternative faith communities which found that a growing number of people look for Christian community in places outside local churches. It found “24.5 percent of Americans now say their primary form of spiritual nourishment is meeting with a small group of 20 or fewer people every week.”
I can’t help wondering if there is a parallel here to the changing world of shopping. Not so long ago, everywhere you looked, grocery stores were morphing into” Superstores” so big you needed roller-skates. Now that trend is reversing. It seems that the Supercenters are trying out models shrunk to the size of the old neighborhood market. (My neighborhood still has a neighborhood market, and it appears to be thriving.)
Church is changing, but I don’t believe it is dying. Perhaps small congregations and even smaller Christian community groups, along with a few large congregations, are what’s in store in the future. As church leaders, we’ve often been urged to set our sites on large, but many small communities could be a really effective way to live the gospel in this new century. After all, it worked pretty well in the first century!
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.