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A rough decade for American congregations
A new survey shows a decline in worship service attendance in the United States.
September 20th, 2011
04:43 PM ET

A rough decade for American congregations

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Church

soundoff (2,018 Responses)
  1. Terry

    I find it odd that all religious teachings and writings were created by men, not by women. A group of men get their dinner party committed to canvas, and even the waiter was a man. Now, I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this is getting me closer than I care to tread. Want more wives, "Please hand me a pen". Want more money for the church, "Please hand me a pen". We cannot have the word "booty" in our modern day bible, "Please hand me an eraser".

    September 21, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  2. Loss4words

    Nostradamus said "There would be eras like these". Decline, stagnation, corruption within...he could not see the future, he understood how to predict HUMAN NATURE!

    September 21, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • Jimtanker

      So did the Shirelles: There'll be days like this Mama said (Mama said, mama said).

      September 21, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • Deep North

      Motown is Prophetic!

      September 21, 2011 at 7:13 am |
    • albert

      Nostradamus is an over rated fool. Basically took writings/quotes, twisted the words around and made them his own. You say he could predict human nature? Perhaps, but could he explain it? Big difference.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  3. Jimtanker

    Oh, the poor church. Making all that money tax free. I feel as bad for them as I do the people making over $1million a year that will soon be having to pay the same tax as I do. Poor rich people.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • Terry

      Largest private-land owners in the world – Churches.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • Deep North

      So did GE!

      September 21, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • Jimtanker

      Actually GE made a PROFIT of $75.59 BILLION last year and got a TAX REFUND of $3.3 BILLION. Makes you a little sick doesn't it? No wonder we're in a deficit. TAX THE RICH!!!!

      September 21, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  4. BD70

    Don't need religion and hated sitting in church even as a youngster. At the tender age of 10 something never quite seemed true in any sermon preached. I have my beliefs and they don't include religion.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:59 am |
  5. albert

    Religion is a mockery of God. It's demise is actually prophesied in the Bible. Today's churches are nothing but social clubs with no substance in terms of learning the truths of the Bible. Many lies are taught in the churches that are not Bible based. Rather, they are based on Pagan traditions and Greek mythology. Christmas, Easter, Eternal torment in Hell (if you are bad), are just a few examples. I personally think that if the world wants to get out of the debt they are in, start taxing the churches especially the ones that stick their noses in politics (something Jesus did not teach or promote).

    September 21, 2011 at 6:45 am |
    • Jimtanker

      NOTHING is prophesized in the bible. It's just a bunch of junk.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:51 am |
    • Islam

      NOTHING is prophesized in the quran. It's just a bunch of junk.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:57 am |
    • albert

      You have obviously never read the Bible. Don't confuse religion with the Bible.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • Jimtanker

      Islame

      You're right. Since it is just a poor copy of the xtian bible anyway.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • TheGarderner

      The bible is the written LIE

      September 21, 2011 at 7:06 am |
    • Vijanth

      Well said Albert. The Book of Matthew, Chapter 7 says it all. We should be doing what Christ says in our daily life, not going to Church every week and have heart full of filth. Sadly that is what is happening in all the new born Churches. I used to go to Church to hear great messages but now it is like a club house even for the case of traditional Churches. The congregation sing, raise their hands, dip their hands for offering to get the church to sustain. Where is Faith – which passes all understanding

      September 21, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      using the bible to defend the bible is circular...you also can't use it to defend god because apparently it is the divine word of god...until you provide proof of your claims using other sources, your claims stand as fallacies...it then leaves the question of how one can trust such book-you would not normally trust any other person that lies, so why trust a book that was written by 40 some odd men over the course of 1600 plus years 2000 years ago and 4000 years after the earth was apparently created?
      quite apparently most christians do not care what the origin of the bible is...as long as they get to be lazy and not do the research, all is good...it unfortunately does not work in the world we now live

      September 21, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  6. DrJStrangepork

    Interesting report. I am interested in the reason for the decline. How the percentages break down: loss of faith in the church organization, economical, generational changes in ideals, etc... I remember going to church twice on Sunday's and every Wednesday night, but know I have come to the conclusion that organized religion is built on a lack of understanding our environment and fear of what is beyond our limited sight.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      I'm not sure if you have read Gregory Pauls op-ed article in the Washington Post...he gives some excellent stats on the topic. It is well worth the read.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  7. Dave

    Its simple....religion is a mental disorder. Its the practice of using dreams to dictate reality and then trying to pass it off as fact is not so easy to do in a social media world. Look at all these so called religious prophets saying god wants them to be rich – in reality only a idiot would give money to these type of people; hence my earlier point.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:27 am |
    • Techie

      Faith based religions to be replaced with environmentalists... "Al Gore said it, I believe it, that settles it"...

      September 21, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • albert

      Don't confuse religion with what the Bible actually teaches. Read what Jesus said about these "Prophets", and people who claim to be Christian at Matthew 7:20-23. These are the types of scriptures that you never hear in churches. As a Born again Christian to show you from the Bible the story of the Rapture. They cant do it, because it doesn't exist. Same with Santa Clause, the Easter bunny, etc. The churches are far removed from what the Bible teaches.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Albert: try picking up a book based on facts in accordance with science that are up to date instead of a book written 2000 years ago

      September 21, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  8. TR

    David–Before you call the masses ignorant, please learn to spell.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:19 am |
    • m

      Hey, great comeback. Okay, I'll do it then. Religion is a mental disorder.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:30 am |
  9. Old Tom

    While I see the decline in "mainstream" church attendance here in central Ohio, there seems to be a frightening increase in the number of emotional, fundamentalists. The kind of unthinking, Bible quoting nonsense which condemns to hell all who disagree. Been told I'm condemned because I visit the Smithsonian rather than the so-called "creation museum" in Kentucky that really does have exhibitions showing dinosaurs on the ark. This mindless, unthinkinbg belief is what I fear and this is what I fight.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • DrJStrangepork

      Maybe it is just easier for them to get their sensational messages out there via technology and media.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • albert

      The teaching of eternal torment in hell is not a Bible teaching. It is one of the biggest lies. From the bringing of the Bible, God never threatened Adam & Eve with burning in hell. He simply said they would die. Wouldn't you think God would have told the first human couple about burning forever? Sure the Bible mentions fire, but it is symbolic and never speaks of eternal torment. Even from a logical standpoint, how would an invisible spirit literally burn? Read what Jesus said about these make pretend Christians at Matthew 7:20-23.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:58 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Albert: really? then obviously you have decided to pick and choose what you wish to read....

      Matthew 13:50 “furnace of fire…weeping and gnashing of teeth”
      Mark 9:48 “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”
      Revelation 14:10 “he will be tormented with fire and brimstone”
      Revelation 14:11 “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest day and night”
      Revelation 20:14 “This is the second death, the lake of fire”
      Revelation 20:15 “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”

      while the word hell is not directly used, the term itself is defined as a place of suffering and punishment in the afterlife. It would appear that the verses as set out above certainly do describe hell.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  10. kevin

    they'll be converted to mosques real soon my christian god fearing bible toting jesus freaks.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:57 am |
    • Justicar

      Kevin, sometimes reading the entire article is useful. Note the last paragraph which specifically points out that mosques are including in the 'survey', and are thankfully suffering the same decline.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  11. Hwyman

    Just because the us economy sucks God still rules the world †

    September 21, 2011 at 5:46 am |
  12. TheTruth

    x

    Too Stupid To Understand Science? Try Religion!

    x

    September 21, 2011 at 5:39 am |
    • David

      You obvieously don't understand science either. Stop the Ignorence!

      September 21, 2011 at 5:58 am |
    • TheWiz71

      What the reply below says. Science and religion are apples and oranges. Not the same thing at all. They run on parallel tracks, not intersecting ones. Sorry, but your post does belie a complete ignorance of the topic.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • Justicar

      Thewiz, um no. Do not attempt to wrongly lecture people on what science is. When a religion claims something as though, say, it's possible to dead for three days and then come back to life, that religion is explicitly trespassing on the fields of biology, chemistry and physics. And in doing so proving that the claims of that religion are counterfactual.

      Religions, all of them, overtly make claims that fall within the province of science to investigate. And in investigate them we do. So far, the claims without exception fail.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:55 am |
  13. jacques

    Please dont confuse the general word religion with Faith in GOD. GOD does exist, I am 100% sure of that, no myth.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:39 am |
    • Kebos

      You can say that and you can believe that. But that doesn't make it so. And books that claim to be written by the hand of god don't make that so either. In fact, these books (bible, koran, talmud) do much to disprove the existence of any god based on their weak writings and contradictory nature.

      The world will be a much better place when it is rid of religion. The arrogance of it and the power that it places in the hands of a few is abhorrent. Mankind does not need the deceit that religion instills or the cult mentality that it breeds.

      Religion gone from the face of this planet will be beneficial for all. Of this I am sure.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • Del

      Wow, what a compelling argument.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:18 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      How can you be 100% sure of this god? Please be the first ever to provide the factual evidence as to this without the use of the bible or the voices you have heard. Claims such as the one you have made require evidence.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:49 am |
    • albert

      Science also makes erroneous claims. For example they say it is mathematically possible for there to be life somewhere else in the universe. Yet where is the proof? Their is none, zero proof. In order to prove the Big Bang theory, science would have to create something from nothing (good luck with that). Then there are the scientific artist conceptions of what early man looked like. Absolute 100% impossible to prove. And more often then not, these are based on a few bone fragments. Yet you believe it all as truth. And what about the many scientist that do believe in God? So you see, except for the many cool advancements in technology, medicine, etc, science is not all that different from religion. Science also believes in invisible things that have never been seen, witness, or touched before. And correct me if I am wrong, but Just like you say religion was man made, science is man made too right?

      September 21, 2011 at 7:14 am |
    • torrentula

      Science never claimed to be a supernatural belief system. It is a method of investigating what our senses can perceive, and since our senses are not always completely reliable, people can make mistakes. But science is also a self-correcting system. If we find that something is wrong with a theory, we don't think it is a test of our faith. We correct the error.

      The claim of life is not erroneous. It is a statement of probability. It is not proven fact, as no scientist has ever claimed, so your argument is a red herring. Artists conceptions are *artistic*, though much of the technique of bone and muscle structure, skin structure and other traits are based on scientific evidence. But again, nobody ever claimed it was factual evidence that early man actually looked like that. You seem to confuse inference with wild guessing. We can use things we already know to point towards a likely probability. This is scientifically and mathematically correct procedure, and it leads to many discoveries. If it doesn't, then at least we can find out our error instead of maintaining a lie.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  14. Rich Dali

    Plus none of that even addresses the wide-spread molestation cases that took place within the Catholic faith. Certainly a deciding factor in my own drop-off in attendance.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:37 am |
    • TheWiz71

      The Episcopal (or Anglican) Church welcomes you! All the catholicity, none of the pope stuff.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:15 am |
  15. tjaman

    So long as mainstream faith movements are allowed to call for the assassination of a sitting president from the pulpit I will no longer darken the doors of a "church." These "Christians" argue our president adheres so closely to the radical teachings of Rev. Wright - /and/ he's a secret Muslim (like that would even matter, but oh well). Don't get me started on Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps, and as for the rest, running around scared witless of sharia law with zero knowledge of what that even means, and oh yeah ... EEK! a MOSQUE! What passes for Christianity in this country is mind-bogglingly unacceptable, and at the very least, if you preach politics from the pulpit you are peddling influence and need to be TAXED, no question about it.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:36 am |
  16. Sarcasm

    Amen Bdog. People are simply matter and everything is relative. Wanna choose right from wrong? You pick. Standards? The standard is our creation story. This world was an accident and brought about by chaos and therefore needs to act in it's natural state. Secular humanism...human rights? These people are as weak as the religious and two times as hypocritical. They wanna play the "Christian Ethic" role and admit realizing we're just material and chemical reactions. Let freedom ring for all. True anarchy! Emotions are nothing more than chemical reactions, don't make them more than they were meant to be. I'm calm right now for this matter.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • John Richardson

      Funny how what you say just isn't true. All anarchists may be atheist. But few atheists are anarchists. Oh, and few anarchists feel that people can do whatever they please, anyway. They don't believe in GOVERNMENT CONTROL. There are forms of social control other than government control, as our own conservative evangelicals themselves are fond of emphasizing.

      People like you think you can figure out what other people MUST also believe if they believe differently from you about god, and time and time again, you get it stupidly wrong. If you want to find out what atheists believe regarding ethics and politics and what not, ASK them and LISTEN.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  17. Gauntletwielder

    Yay!!! Churches and religion are anachronistic. Ever since humans have existed, more people have been killed in the name of religion than any other reason. All churches should be demolished and replaced with housing for the poor or homeless.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:28 am |
    • Techie

      Nobody was ever killed for religion. If you dive under the covers of religion there will always be another reason. Religion has been the backdrop and if and when religion goes the backdrop will just change to something else. If Hitler won and the world was all blue-eyed blondes, the ones in power would just pick another trait as inferior..and on and on... It's not about religion or how you look. You are caught up in the form war takes rather then the substance that makes it.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:17 am |
  18. Bdog

    I pray that religion will leave the world...

    September 21, 2011 at 5:18 am |
  19. Tony

    .Eventually we are learning that the "god" story is indeed myth. It's mind control, and the people behind it have been as crooked as a question mark for centuries. You dont want to believe its all rubbish, but at the end of the day, once you become educated, you can clearly see it for what it is.. Big Business. Speaking of which...Why are these churches not paying taxes when the country is in such terrible shape?

    September 21, 2011 at 4:50 am |
  20. Tom

    USA has always been uptight and (annoyingly) puritanical since oh , about 1550 or so when the settlers rallied against the immoral and detestable London nightlife. I cant think of a more apt example of "holier-than-thou-itis spreading around like the black plague.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:33 am |
    • Cradle Catholic

      waaaaaaaaaaah. If you don't like it, move to China.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:34 am |
    • TheGarderner

      no, Tom will stay in the US to make this country free of religious scam for the better. He got things to do

      September 21, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • Techie

      Statiscally the "puritanical" beliefs have merit. In single parent homes poverty is much higher. In homes with "step" parents children are more likely to be abused. I don't think i have to go over the "real" cost of thievery, keeping people in prison, locking your door, insurance, security guards, etc. Young males without a sense of spirituality replace it with something else, gangs, violence, drugs. Regardless of your position on faith murder is not a good thing, stealing is not a good thing, adultery is not a good thing (leading to murder, broken homes, increased abuse....leading to teenage pregnancy, increased high school drop out rates, STD's, etc. ) The "rules" developed for a reason...

      September 21, 2011 at 7:11 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.