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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. tom

    I would be much more inclined to go to church if the churches near where I live weren't so gaudy and decadent. I live near touchdown jesus in Ohio and when the statue burned down they immediately put plans together to rebuild it, a million dollar endeavor. And the head of the church lives in a multi-million dollar mansion. All this money wasted to vain ideals and idolitry. I simply choose to live my life as God see fit, not worry about all the fake prophets.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Maggie

      All the elders at my congregation work. They have wives and children. No members of the congregation will support them. No collection box ever passes arround. There is a collection box by the door, no one knows if donate or not. I give something every month or every two months. Every tree months we have an accounting of the funds that were collected, how much of it was spent and how much of it is left. Sometimes there is a surplus but sometimes there is a deficit. No one is paid for their religious service

      September 21, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  2. El Flaco

    There is no place for religion in the Corporate State. Corporatism, colleges of business, and business leadership teach the exact opposite of Christian values. Economic Conservatives complain continuously that Conservatism is all about economics and there is no place for religion in it. Conservatism destroys religion.

    Conservatism is the Antichrist. It opposes every traditional belief of Christianity when it comes to how we treat our brothers and sisters all over this earth.

    Christianity is selfless. Conservatism is selfish.

    Christianity is moral. Conservatism is completely without morals.

    Christianity is kind. Conservatism is cruel.

    Christianity preaches the golden rule. Conservatism values only gold and nothing else

    September 21, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Julius

      Christianity is a fairy tale. You are loony.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Tom

      Your points are all valid, but I would suggest to you that one could replace the word Conservative with Liberal and it would still be valid. Just because the Liberal political agenda seems to be concerned with helping people, ultimately non-stop handouts harm the people receiving them, stealing their ambition and independence. (Differerence between teaching someone to fish and just giving them fish.) The fact is, the name of almost any collection of sinful human beings could be replaced and still work. We are all selfish, cruel, etc. at times.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • MarkinFL

      So feeding the poor is a bad thing. Check.

      Better to die of hunger and be independent. I get it.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Tom

      @MarkinFL ... LOL, sorry but that's not what I was saying! I think one of the most important ministries a church or temple or synagogue can perform is to feed the poor. And yes, Government should make provision for the weakest in society. I think it's too broad a brush to paint all Conservatives as wanting the poor to starve to death and get it over with! It's just that a friend of mine was on welfare for a time, and the program was designed to keep him on it... if he managed to get a decent job, all the benefits immediately dried up, so there was a motivation to not try to make the leap to leave the program.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • PulTab

      Ditto to Julius.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Fred1

      Nuns – brining gasoline
      On 22 April 1994, Séraphine Mukamana had hidden herself in a garage when militias attacked a convent in Sovu in southern Rwanda. "We sought refugee in the garage and closed and barricaded the doors. Outside a bloodbath is going on. Suddenly an orphan begins to weep as it gets to hot in the garage. At once, the killers approach the garage." As the refugees refuse to come out, the militia leader Emmanuel Rekeraho decides to burn them alive in the garage. "'The nuns are coming to help us. They are bringing gasoline,' I heard [Rekeraho] say. Looking through a hole that the militiamen meanwhile had made in the wall, I indeed saw Sister Gertrude and Sister Kisito. The latter was carrying a petrol can. Shortly upon that, the garage is set on fire." Testimony against two Catholic nuns, Sisters Gertrude and Maria Kisito in a Brussels court, May 2001..

      September 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  3. Nevada Chan

    Maybe there is hope for humans afterall. Wake-up to reality and reject religion.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Maggie

      The bible says the government will turn against religions at the end. From all your comments, I think this time is fast approaching. I am looking forward to that time so christiandoms can stop bringing reproach to God's name and have people speak abusively about the truth.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Marinara Marianne

      RAmen!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Julius

      Maggie, who cares what a fairy tale book says.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Marinara Marianne

      ...to Nevada, that is

      September 21, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      sounds more like activism to me. I would encourage those to seek the truth, and not reject religion. How can you blindly follow someone's suggestion to reject religion? Are you that persuasive ? Each person must independently seek the truth for themselves

      September 21, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  4. o8sys

    Weaker financially but stronger spiritually. The two go hand in hand. Notice the effect of anti-christian activity on our blessed nation.....economic collapse, immoral politicians, hatred run amok, chaos everywhere. Christianity continues to be the only resting spot for sanity in our country and world.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Weak Humans

      LMAO! Good one!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I find watching Sponge Bob to be much more effective. Its also a mindless relaxation from reality, but it does no harm to anyone.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  5. Badguy

    Yah...Yah...And what church do I send my contribution to?

    September 21, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  6. Weak Humans

    Perhaps more people are FINALLY realizing that God won't do for them and that in fact they have to do for themselves. Maybe we are evolving a bit beyond the silly, made up, embarrassing mythologies that once served a purpose in poorly educated, lawless societies but which now have hardly a useful function in modern, law-governed societies.

    Just a thought.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  7. The Dude

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pz38P24jHBc&w=640&h=360]

    September 21, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  8. The Dude

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pz38P24jHBc&w=640&h=360]

    Some good news finally. People are starting to free their minds from the poison that is Religion.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      Religion is toxin for many, because many do not preach true gospel. There are so many flavors of religion, that one could go in almost any direction if undecided. So what is truth, what can be trusted? Well, for starters we know that we are here on earth alive. We know that so far, there has been no sign of life on any other planet. We seem to be alone in the universe. We know that our world has a logical order and balance – night and day, constant seasons, viable ecosystem, diverse varities of life. So how is it that we can't find any signs of life on any other planet? That is the place to start when we discuss truth. I believe that God created the universe, and everything in it, and made our earth the center of his universe. I believe that the Bible, in its original text, is the sourcebook of knowledge for those seeking to know more about the existence of man, and reconciliation with the Creator. Over the last century there have been many versions of the Bible come out which distort the truth in the Bible. Either the original Hebrew/Greek Bible or the King James version are the most reliable. The United States was founded on religious freedom, so we must not take that right for granted. If we turn back to the principles of the Bible, we can restore America.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • The Dude

      Their is no "True" gospel.

      You are following some one elses delusion.

      Find your own delusion and keep it to yourself. At least that is something I could respect because it would involve you thinking for yourself.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  9. grist

    We are becoming a less religious country.My kids tell me that in their high school, about half the kids are agnostic or athiestic. More and more they see science as the way. This is very good news. We have to start using science to make decisions in our society or we are doomed. That we still debate whether evolution should be taught in schools in 2011 is sad.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • Dak

      How is scientism or the belive in science any better than religion (based on your view)? Most of science is based on THEORIES not absolute truth. Most science advocates treat science as the absolute truth

      September 21, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Dak

      made a typo – belief

      September 21, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      We can see very clearly that evolution did not happen. The major differnces in life forms proves it. If every form of life looked similar to one another, you would have evidence to support that theory. But life forms are very contrasting – take for instance the crocadile and the butterfly, the Elephant and the mouse, a human and a squid. Only a creator could have assigned such vast differences that still exist today. Evolution should be thrown out of the classroom. Creation is the only viable truth.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • rufud

      science and religion are not mutually exclusive.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • MarkinFL

      DAK, what are you talking about? Science is just a method. Its a way of looking at the world without the veil of superst.ition. That's it, nothing more. Science has pretty much given us every modern technology we use today. From farming methods to travel, to building materials. Religion has produced.????... A few positive things for some individuals I'm sure. But it has also produced wars, terrorism and intolerance to people who are different from them (religion, orientation, etc.)

      On the whole, I'll take science based reality, thank you.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Ryan, do you even have a high school education? Your argument is completely meaningless, did you read that in some kind of religious tract or something?

      September 21, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Brian

      Who the hell listens to highschool kids about anything? Either on one end you have the bible bashing wacko's that went to youth group or something along those lines on a Friday night or the other with the kids that say that because it's generally socially acceptable at that age and because there life is still young.
      Talk to them again when they get married and have kids and maybe we'll get a more realistic view of what people feel.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      Many of you came here seeking validation, something that agrees with your belief that there is no God. If you actually seek out the truth, instead of trying to validate your own preconceived feelings, you will find that the evidence points to Creation. We are still trying to find forms of life on other planets to satisfy the belief there is no God. But science has come up empty handed. What we are finding out is that the universe is really really big, and that the universe is beautiful, even with being void of life. So I encourage each of you to seek out truth and evidence and to take in consideration the evidence given in the Bible, particularly the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Because you can't really make an informed decision until you've examined all the evidence.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      MarkinFL – Examining the evidence goes beyond education. Education is someone filling your head with their perceptions of the world. Science is figuring it out for yourself without the help of others. But I do have a 4 year college degree, and graduated at the top of my class. You see, you can read text books, or you can go out and test your theories. I'm not talking about reading articles like this one. I'm talking about examining evidence. Science actually supports Creation. Scientific theories are what they are – beliefs about how something works. Examine the evidence supporting the theory. There is simply no way evolution happened. Life is too diverse.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Joseph

      @Ryan Shells
      Even children can tell the difference between myth and science. Where did you go wrong?

      September 21, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      Joseph – if you actually had a point, a comment would be welcome. Just attacking me for asking people to seek out truth isn't exactly your best work.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  10. CanuckPhD

    Yay! More people might start to realize now that worshiping an imaginary fairy monster is a waste of time and do something actually productive that helps their fellow human beings. Welcome to the 21st century sheeple.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • me

      Were you alive ten years ago? The world hasn't gotten happier...

      September 21, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Tom

      Yay! Let's repeat the atheistic societies we had in the fairly recent past, like the one under Stalin. * sarcasm *

      September 21, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      The Bible has truth for you. This life is but a mere vapor in eternity. You would do well to seek God. At the other end of this life, you will not be laughing when you find out that God was in control this whole time, and you just wasted your life. The spiritual life is eternal, and working hard on eternal treasures are more important than working on material treasures. This life offers power, wealth, fame, pride, and short-term pleasure. All are vanity and lost upon death. Compassion, love, forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice, humility endure forever. The Bible is much more powerful than any speech, more profitable than any business venture, and more fulfilling than any worldly thing. I'll take my Bible, you can keep your change.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  11. Maggie

    The bible does not give a date of Jesus birth or ask for the date to be observed. All true christians know that the holidays are of pagant roots and they stay clear of them. The bible says " Know the truth and it wil set you free". I know the truth and i am free from nonesense.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Sybaris

      There it is again....."true christians"

      It's been interesting watching how you people continue to segregate each other.

      Regardless your improper spelling of "pagan" leaves your post highly suspect.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • Julius

      LOL... this is funny.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • Ryan Shells

      Jesus said He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Sure, Christmas is celebrated by Christians in observance for Jesus' birth. It may not be an exact date, but we know it was within the general timeline. It gives Christians something to celebrate. The birth of the Savior. This arguement is just a distraction. The Truth message is that Jesus came to earth and died to make payment for the sins of those who follow Him. We must pick up our cross and walk daily with Christ and perservere to the end. Those on the outside will laugh and mock, but the Lord's portion in the end is worth taking any insult and bearing any burden in this life.
      4No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.

      10Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

      11It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him:

      12If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us:

      13If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself.

      14Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers.

      15Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

      We as Christians know what is truth. We know what our mission is. The question always remains: will those who follow, continue to strive, or will they let the things of this world overtake them. Those who hold true to God's word to the end are the elect of God. Most people outwardly claim to be religious, but reject the One they pretend to serve, while inwardly serving themselves.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  12. Amerikan

    Most churches have become branches of political parties. I choose not to go to a political rally every Sunday.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Maggie

      You did not do enough research. Not all religious organization is involved in politics.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • me

      If you went to church on Sunday you'd probably realize how wrong you are Amerikan.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • Badguy

      The church I went to was like going to a Perry rally. I know ALL churches may not be that way...but..mine was!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Sybaris

      You people need to study the evolution of religion and the part it played in european politics.

      If you don't think religion plays any part in US politics today you are extremely naive.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  13. stevie68a

    The preachers who live like kings, are helping to tear religion down. Joel Olsteen, is a particularly evil one, because he gives
    some good common sense advice. The phony smile is what gets me. He's got a smile for everything, even when asked tough
    questions from interviewers. Have you ever been insulted by someone, and they smiled while doing it? This is what I mean about
    Olsteen. His god, like Pat Robertson, and so many others, is Money. There are loads of self-help books and tapes out there,
    you don't need the phony gods of these people.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Neil Becker

      An answer to the road modern churches are taking: "The Depression Proof Church" by Frank Becker
      http://www.depressionproofchurch.com/

      September 21, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Maggie

      the bible says in the last days people will go to places to have their ears tickle. Joe olsteen preaches prosperity gospel. God wants you to be rich, etc. However, he does not tell the people what they need to hear. He is all about making money.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I want to hear more about ear tickling! Sounds strangely compelling that ear tickling will become a new vice that will presage the end of time. Just imagine if wet willies became the norm! =O

      September 21, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  14. hippypoet

    maybe people don't want to have their kids get touched!!! just a thought!

    September 21, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • patrick

      so true

      September 21, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  15. oldbones24

    I have always considered myself as a religious person, but 10 years ago I stopped going to church when there was politics and hate preached from the pulpit. It is obvious to me that religion has become a money grabbing business in this country.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • me

      Judging the whole by the part. Bad logic.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • Maggie

      you went to the wrong place. There is one organization, that is not involved in politics at all.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  16. Christastrophe

    Jasper re-read the article:

    "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,"

    September 21, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  17. Ryan Cramer

    People are getting smarter

    September 21, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Joshua

      That's DEFINITELY not it. Only half of the American public have college degrees. I for one am a secularist and haven't been to church in QUITE some time simply because it's a dull experience. If I had to choose between going to a football game or going to church, I would choose going to church ONLY because the suffering is only an hour long and sometimes I get free food.

      People don't go to church anymore because they get nothing out of it. The churches have no mission. People want to go to be a part of something bigger than themselves. To help out their community. But churches don't do that anymore. They just get together and glorify god by listening to a sermon and singing some horribly slow songs. Omg, those songs. They lasted FOREVER! Anyway, I did enjoy the LOGOS program back in high school. That was the only time in my life I looked forward to going to church.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  18. f.turner

    There are many good reasons to stay away from the Churches - http://www.blackcollarcrimes.com

    September 21, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  19. jasper

    The majority of these shrinking congregations are also in shrinking towns, and this article could just have easily been about at rough decade for small town usa. True small towns presented a social compulsion to go along with the norm and show up on Sundays. And that motivation is not as prevalent in suburbia. Therefore the Church is less full of hypocrites. But still, the invitation stands, come be one with us!

    September 21, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • The Dude

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eqKb5ViN_Q&w=640&h=360]

      September 21, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  20. Christastrophe

    What a shock! Less people believe in made up stories in 2011?!

    September 21, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • fellowtraveler

      Atheists are as ignorant, illogical, naive and immature as the extremist religious folk who think every word in the bible came directly from God. Many people get caught up in 'religion" along with the evils that supposed religious people commit, that they don't even seem to recognize the proper questions to ask. Let me try to explain why atheism is irrational, illogical and a pointless, naive belief. 1st) All of our physical bodies will breakdown and die one day. This is true regardless if you're an atheist or a believer in some afterlife. 2nd) All physical matter breaks down or changes, though is never fully destroyed. This planet will be consumed and utterly destroyed at some point in the next 5 billion years, if not by our actions then at least when our sun uses up all its fuel and expands to engulf the Earth. Even beyond that, science shows that every star in the universe will eventually die out completely. 3rd) So since all physical matter is temporary, atheism's call for faith in science, treating people well because it's just the thing to do, using science to better ourselves, protecting the environment, etc. are all vain, pointless and irrational endeavors. If there is nothing that survives the physical death of our bodies, then NOTHING matters, since ALL physical arrangements of matter are temporary. Now it may be true that nothing survives our bodies death. I don't know because i've never been dead as far as I remember. But that's just the point. Atheism asserts unequivocally that nothing will survive our bodies death. How anyone can make such a definitive assertion, when the reality is no one really knows, is as irrational and illogical as those who assert their particular religious belief as absolute truth. Therefore, without absolute knowledge as to the actual reality of life, the universe, and everything(Hitchhiker ref.), the only logical course is to at least HOPE that something of who we are will survive the physical death of our bodies and perhaps even live our lives according to that hope since the alternative is pointless oblivion. Just saying....

      September 21, 2011 at 10:35 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.