The Conundrum of Counting Churches

This week’s post is from Rev. David Schoen. Rev. Schoen’s new guide Facing Your Church’s Uncertain Future: Helpful Practices for Courageous Conversations & Faithful Decisions is now available on UCC Resources.  To contact Rev. Schoen, email him at dschoen@ucc.org.

Have you ever wondered how many churches there are in the United States? Or, how many churches are closing every year in United States and how the UCC compares to other denominations? These are questions that I often am asked.  Finding answers to these questions highlights the conundrum – the challenge, diverse perspectives, and value of counting churches.

How many congregations are there in the United States? There are many factors that make a church count complex and difficult. Although some denominations like the UCC have good data, there are church associations that don’t keep reliable figures and many independent churches. Another factor in making a reliable count is that congregations open and close with frequency. So, the number varies among researchers within a range of 350,000 to 400,000. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research estimated from a 2010 survey that there are roughly 350,000 religious congregations, including 12,000 non-Christian congregations.  The researcher Simon Brauer estimated 384,000 congregations in 2012.  His study suggests that the number of congregations in the US increased from 336,000 in 1998 to a peak of 414,000 in 2006, but then leveled off at 384,000 in 2012. The growth in the total number of congregations in the last two decades came from the increase in independent congregations from 54,000 in 1998 to 84,000 in 2012, as well as growth in non-Christian congregations (Muslim, Buddhist and others) from 16,000 to 26,000.  The count was not so positive for 13 major denominations which decreased from 120,000 to 113,000 congregations.  Of these 13 denominations only the Assemblies of God, Seventh Day Adventist and Presbyterian Church in America increased significantly in numbers of congregations, whereas the United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian Church (USA), ELCA, UCC, DOC and Reformed Church in American decreased.

Looking ahead into the future, what can we expect about the number of churches closing?  There are diverse perspectives on this.  There are estimates that one out of four congregations will close in the next 15 years or that 20% of Protestant congregations will close in the next two decades. A rather startling number is often quoted that 6,000 to 10,000 churches will close in the United States each year, which would be around 100 to 200 churches each week.  There is the opinion that conservative evangelical organizations, like LifeWay Research, which published these figures do so to increase fervor for evangelization and outreach.  Academic research, including Brauer’s suggest that 1% of congregations close a year.  Brauer’s figures showed a leveling-off between 2006 and 2012 of about 30,000 churches, which means that roughly 5,000 churches a year closed in those six years. If the current percentage is about 1% to 2% that would total between 3,850 to 7,700 congregations closing a year.  That’s 75 to 150 congregations a week, still a substantial number.

How does the UCC compare to these church closure percentages?  From 2006 through 2017, an average of 27 UCC congregations closed a year.  From 2012 through 2017, our church count declined from 5194 to 4956, so our percentage of closure was approximately 0.5%.  How do we compare to other denominations? The Presbyterian Church (USA) which has about twice as many congregations as the UCC, had an average of 99 churches close from 2015 – 2018, which is about 1% of their congregations.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in American which is also more than twice the size of the UCC has had an average of around 100 churches close a year.  So, we and other ecumenical partners reflect that closure rate of around 1% a year.  Although these church closures seem substantial, it is interesting that research notes ‘congregations are surprisingly resilient to closure and have one of the lowest death rates of any organizational category.

What does this conundrum of counting churches mean to us? What is the value of counting?  Counting members and money doesn’t add up to the vitality and spirit of a congregation, and counting congregations does not add up to the spiritual strength or impact of denominations. But these counts do raise concerns and questions for our attention. Counting congregations today raises the question of ‘What is a church?’  Congregations are changing and finding new ways to be church in the 21st Century.  I’m glad to see that this question is being raised by the UCC discussion for a new Manual on Church.  Beyond the future of congregations, the church count also raises the question of the future and function of mainline denominations.  Like congregations, denominational structures are also called to new ways of being a community of values.  It is curious that bloggers who like to discuss the decline in membership and congregations in mainline denominations are often those who seem to delight in our demise.  I’m not one of those folks.  I agree with Rev. Dr. Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why who said, “Denominations aren’t going to cease to exist. Protestantism isn’t going to cease to exist. But denominations will stay. Now, the second thing that has to be said about that is…. those denominations are going to have to change the way they do business.” 

Now that’s a good topic for another blog.

5 thoughts on “The Conundrum of Counting Churches

  1. Pingback: Are 10,000 Churches Closing Every Year?

  2. I feels like the declining financial issues of middle judicatories is having a large impact on congregations. When there is a reduction of support in recruiting and supervising clergy and in supporting congregations there will be a negative impact on the health and long term survival of congregations and the denomination.

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  3. Recently I spoke with two younger (late thirties) UCC pastors about the future of the church. They both brought up their disillusionment with the Emergent Church movement which that had been taught in seminary. I have read Tickle and some of the others but this next generation of pastors might be starting to be called Post-Emergent.

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    • Thanks for your comment and reflection, Bruce. My hunch is that Phyllis Tickle would appreciate hearing of a Post-Emergent movement/thinking.

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