September 20th, 2011
04:43 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) – A new decade-long survey of American congregations shows religious health and vitality are weaker than they were 10 years ago. While the survey showed that many congregations are adopting new technologies and innovative worship, there were steep drops in financial health and attendance at weekly worship services.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research released the study's findings Saturday in a report titled "A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000 – 2010" authored by David A. Roozen.
In the measured decade, churches, temples and synagogues told surveyors that congregations that were innovative and contemporary showed the highest amount of "high spiritual vitality."
Forty-seven percent of congregations that said their worship experience was "innovative and contemporary" reported high spiritual vitality, versus 17% that said their congregations were "neither innovative nor contemporary."
The vast majority of congregations implemented electronic communications in the past decade. Recently, many have turned to social networking as well, with 41% using Facebook to communicate with congregants.
Congregations are also having hard times financially, the survey found. In 2000, 31% of survey participants reported excellent financial health. In 2010, that number plummeted to just 14%.
The recession, Roozen writes in the report, "affected nearly every kind of congregation equally – large and small; north, south, east and west; financially healthy or struggling before the recession. One bit of good news was that one in 10 congregations reported that by the time of the survey, they had already begun to recover."
Roozen writes that a variety of factors led to the decline, but overall, there are fewer Americans in the pews, and "... more than 1 in 4 American congregations had fewer than 50 in worship in 2010, and just under half had fewer than 100. Overall, median weekend worship attendance of your typical congregation dropped from 130 to 108 during the decade, according to the FACT surveys."
FACT refers to Faith Communities Today, a multifaith coalition that researches congregational life.
While megachurches - congregations with more than 2,000 members - continued to grow in popularity, they still represent only a fraction of American congregations, at one-half of 1%. "And while it appears to be true they are attracting an ever bigger slice of the religious attender pie, it is a bigger slice of a shrinking pie," Roozen wrote.
The decline hit across religious and denominational lines, sparing no one, Roozen wrote. He said that "no single category or kind of congregation ... was exempt from the decadal downsizing of worship attendance."
The data came from Faith Communities Today surveys and represents 11,077 congregations and 120 denominations of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, the institute said. Most often, the surveys were completed by the congregation's leader, and the institute estimates the margin of error to be plus or minus 4 percentage points.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.