Church in Decline? A Matter of Perspective

Rev. Daniel Haas is currently serving as a chaplain in hospice, hospital, and Army Reserve. Rev. Haas loves numbers, manages his own blog, and helps churches with their social media, website, and communications needs.

The Vital Signs & Statistics Blog has reported the UCC’s decline for the longest time.

The 2020 statistical profile of the United Church of Christ shows it graphically: The church is going down!

But is it?

(Image from RNS)
The church is  double what it was in 1776! Sometimes zooming out at looking at the bigger picture makes a huge difference. It shows what people in 1776 and today have in common: They have more important things to do than attend an institution: in 1776 they tended their fields, now they pursue their side hustles.

But our congregation was so much bigger in the 50ies!
Yes it was! The 1950ies were definitely a period of church growth.
Also: the 1950ies were the only decade of church growth in the last 100 years.
Since then we have plateaued at pre WWII levels.

(Image from RNS)

Churches after World War II played an important role of rebuilding communities after separations and devastations. Build it and they will come was the motto of the religious market place.

Here is where today’s church is not:
We are not in 1776 when farmers were busy at home.
We are not in 1956 where the community needed gathering places.

Here is where today’s church is:
Attendance is roughly where it was during the Civil War.

And what did the forbearers of the UCC do at the time?
– They condemned slavery, ordained black men and women, and started institutions of higher learning. Basically they pursued advocacy and education. Looking at our denomination today, I see a similar picture. We are once again pursuing advocacy and education. By advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons we’re doing our part faithfully again this time.

But one thing we are doing differently this time:
– We are not starting new churches!

The 2020 statistical profile of the United Church of Christ shows that most UCC churches were formed between 1850-1899. Leading up to the Civil War and during reconstruction is where we started 37.7% of all our congregations! Troubled and contentious times are great for investing and building.
Why aren’t we doing that now? The blueprint from history is clear: Be bold in your advocacy and education and start new churches!



3 thoughts on “Church in Decline? A Matter of Perspective

  1. Another important piece of data is the growing number of “nones”, who are finding community and purpose elsewhere. Advocacy and education can be done without church. Starting new churches is about preserving our own institution. Why isn’t the church investing in the advocacy and education efforts already in progress?

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    • As a former “none,” I am skeptical that many “nones” are actually finding community and purpose elsewhere. Rather, I suspect they are just being economically squeezed so that church involvement, which often feels more like maintenance of theological and material institutions than actual community and purpose, is not something they have bandwidth for.

      Also as a former “none,” I think there is rich potential in recognizing a lot of atheist discourse for what it really is, in deep historical terms, which is a branch of prophetic theology that has been ignored, neglected, and cut off by the church.

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  2. Pingback: Church in Decline? A Matter of Perspective – Daniel Haas

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