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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. HeavenSent

    Heaven sent us tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes, famines, and floods, plus cancers, typhoid, malaria, meningitis, lupus, and other horrid diseases too numerous to mention.

    Wow, god is really quite the azzhole.

    Amen.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  2. xnay

    They have all started going to Mosques

    September 20, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  3. ryanmcapple

    Those of us who do believe, go to church. Those of us who don't, stay out of our business.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Shhhhh. Don't tell them about the business. They'll find out it was always bankrupt.

      Amen.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Michelle

      I am a believer but don't go to church. Mostly because of of the economy. Right now i can barely afford to pay electric, mortgage, insurance, food, etc... I can't possibly give to a church so I don't go.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • PopRox80

      Fine with me, ryan – as soon as christians stop trying to legislate based on their notions of "morality" as defined in a 2,000 year old collection of tribal folklore.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • Martin

      "...those of us who don't, stay out or our business." How can you stay out of your own business?

      September 21, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Tom

      @Michelle ... please start going to Church again, it's not important or necessary that you give monetarily, but that you bring yourself and the gifts God has given you to His house! Peace.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Tom

      Michele has it right, religion is about money. The few people who lead it, while not rich, do lead good lives, and what exactly do they do?

      September 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      As long as you stay out of our business. Namely stay away from our government and our schools. Agreed?

      September 21, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  4. Bo

    Praise the Lord, and again, I say; Praise the Lord! There is of course some sorrow attatched to this, PRAISE THE LORD! Because this is fulfilling more of the last day prophices. 2 Thes 2:3- reads: "Let no man decive you by any mwans: for that day day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition who opposeth and exaltheth himself above all that is call God...." That excites me to know that the comming of the Lord is even closer. PRAISE THE LORD! I do not know if the unbelivers really understand this, and I am sorry for them that they don't, but for those of us who do, again I say, Praise the Lord!

    September 20, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      Two thousand years of "any day now". Take a deep breath and hold it till Jesus comes back.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Tom

      Bo is correct, and the Scripture also says that men will say "where is the promise of his return?" I Peter 3:4

      September 21, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  5. smitty77

    I gave up on religion when I was old enough to think for myself. My folks taught me angels lived on top of those fluffy clouds. Didn't believe them and wonder how so many can be so ignorant. I believe that priests, preachers etc have chosen that life to get an easy ride through life.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Tim

      First off, many Christians don't believe the crazy Hollywood version of Heaven, where angels with wings fly around on top of clouds, etc. Some do, but many don't and very few pastors/priests believe this.
      Secondly; While some pastors/priests have it good. Very few do. It is very hard work to be a pastor. There is a lot more to it than writing sermons to present on Sunday morning.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  6. Lisa

    If you don't go to church because the service is not "modern" enough, then you don't go to church to seek God, you go to be entertained. The church is not an entertainment center. It is a house of worship. You want entertainment, go to the movies.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • VS

      Amen! It's known as modern Christianity!

      September 20, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  7. Don't Shoot the Wounded

    Sure the changes in moral beliefs has effected some of these numbers but the "church" in general has done this to itself. This generation wants to see truth and is quick to call out hypocrisy. My family does not attend church because we have lost our faith. We've lost faith in the church. When you see buildings that cost millions of dollars built "to glorify God' while the homeless and hungry you were told to help sit right around the corner, it gives me no desire to be a part of your church. On the other hand you have these new churches popping up that are so open to anything that you might as well not even bother darkening the door. I say alot to say I think the church lost its roots trying to either appeal to the masses or by becoming a money making machine based on the false doctrine of prosperity, Funny the only one getting a blessing out of giving all that money is the preacher driving the Mercedes. I guess Sister Sheila that drives the beat up astro van because she spends the money she would on a new car taking food to shut ins must not be living right. I know where I stand with my creator. I'll give my 10% to a child in need or clothing or food before I'll make a preacher's Cadillac payment. I gather with like minded believers on a regular basis. We're assembling just not in a building deemed a church. I think that is more of why the decline than anything. Folks are either finding alternatives or walking away from their faith all together.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Seeker of Truth

      I was taught the Ten Commandments at the age of 5 by a neighbor woman, and in future years a regular attender of Southern Baptist Churches in the south. I somehow accepted at an early age the presence of the spirit of was God, and did not have to be taken to church. However, many years later, having worked in as a church employee during many of these years, I have lived through many of the changes we're now seeing. The church has lost its influence for several reasons but mainly people often don't think they have to be in church to find God. However, if we go back and study what Jesus said about true worship, it's very plain. In the New Testament of the Bible, read in John 4, verses 20-24 (see entire chapter for the whole story). Much of our great music of the church was written through divine inspiration of the true nature of God and why Jesus came to earth. God is not confined to a church and didn't create all these religious denominations, as I see it, with all their rules. The whole message of the Bible of the purpose of worship is often buried. The churches have a real challenge to be relevant in today's world. The good news is that God loves us and can speak to us if we have our ears and hearts open.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  8. whee

    Yoga is IN.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  9. R Burns

    In my view there have been two problems with maintaining church activity, for myself and for the general population. First is the lack of reasonable timing for meetings. Although many have embraced the usual 9 to 5 structure which society as a whole has fallen into with work schedules – working church meetings around that. I need an early afternoon meeting due to health constraints. This is the only time of day I am able to be out and about, the other hours I'm involved with taking care of my disabilities. I've spoken to many folks who would like a better meeting schedule. Find me a church I can attend at 2pm! Not there. There are also no outreach programs for individuals who are unable to attend regular meetings but still want a connection with the faith community. The other is the lack of strong leadership. Instead of preaching to those who need to hear the message, sermons have become watered down versions of what ministers think people want to hear, mixed with pleas for financial support and sometimes outright misleading approaches to what God and his world are all about. People know the difference. Many are there to try to find some understanding of what is expected of them by God and how they can improve life now through God's directives. Not hearing it at the pulpit!

    September 20, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • PopRox80

      Wow, it sounds like church has become like internet spam. If what you say is true, I wouldn't want to go even if I DID believe in christianity.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • Indy

      I took a class on church outreach and one of the things we discussed is Internet based churches. They can be great for people who can't get out of the house or find a local church that they like. You could try looking up lifechurch.tv. It is a little different to do church online but a lot of people like it.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  10. 21k

    you would think there could not be an easier way for a business to make beaucoup bucks so easily: make up stuff that can't be proven wrong, sell your audience on it, ask for money. yet they can't break even. need some black-hearted wharton grads running the place instead of preachers.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  11. Harry

    I think what we got going on in America, and with all the hate and malice and hypocrites it pushes the younger generation away from the church. So many use God's name but don't actually live the way he wants us or do what Jesus tells us to do. Love thy neighbor. I see hate in politics and politicians using God as a means to get them elected into a position and people are too easy to fall for it all. I hear alot of me, my, mine, but being christian we should be taking care of eachother. What even happened to What would Jesus do? whatever happened to Love in music? or Love in anything? God is Love, until people, churches, politicians start getting this, I fear that the less people will turn to the church.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • PopRox80

      I think you're correct. At least in the USA, christian is becoming synonymous with hypocrisy, greed, and a definite lack of compassion, since the most vocal religious elements tend to be power-hungry and generally nuts. Meanwhile, sane people such as yourself, who believe in the good tenets of what the bible had to say, are being drowned out in a chorus of crazies.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:54 am |
    • ChandraJ

      You are absolutely right, Harry. The many churches in the US have turned into businesses where they make people feel good in exchange for a small or large donation (depending on the stupidity of the donor). Instead of preaching about the living a life like what Jesus asked us to do, these bogus preachers just help us to feel good doing exactly what we want to do. All the churches that I have been to talk very little about helping the poor – even when there are plenty of poor in the immediate neighborhood. Of course, they collect money to help the poor heathen in Africa! The hypocrisy in churches is so blatant we quit attending church 10 years ago and have told our kids to basically to honor all religions, keep an open mind, be kind and compassionate to fellowmen. Recently I heard not so subtle anti-govt political statements being made during a bible study in a church in Texas. Someone should expose such churches and strip them of the 501 c 3 status – another way to increase tax revenue from poltical fronts acting as churches.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • sportzriter13

      You hit the nail on the head! Not only is it now associated with greed and bigotry, but also with a lack of education and misogyny.
      I am lucky enough to be in a church that doesn't make me check my desire for a separation of church/state, libertarian beliefs (or brain) at the door. I wish that more of us would speak up and help combat the prevailing image of a modern-day American Christian.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  12. when

    Good evening Herbert.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  13. when

    You argue like first graders. I did not say communism was the only alternative. You imply I said something that I did not. I merely asked you to take at a look at a group of ppl that exclude God. You cry and complain, "Ahh, woe is me! If only there were no religion." So I gave you an example of a ppl without religion. NOW what's your problem?

    September 20, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • PopRox80

      The problem is with your false equivalency. Lack of religion is merely one symptom of a communistic state. It was just one more way for the central government to exercise power over its citizens. Atheism is not the motive of a communistic state. It is a side effect.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • Martin

      Actually, Jesus would wholly approve of a true communist state, because everyone would be working together, for each other, and for the common good. The totalitarian regimes that have called themselves communist were anything but.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  14. Justin

    People are wisening up to realize how silly religion is.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Martin

      No, they're just lazy and have more fun on the internet.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  15. jimmymax

    Even dummies eventually realize that all that grovelling and giving money away to their church benefits only the dude(s) running the church.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  16. bmalt34

    Time to move to Israel!!

    September 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  17. Sid

    herbert juarez is a spineless coward.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  18. herbert juarez

    The loss of moral bearing ,is a severe danger sign that a nation is in peril of imminent collapse.Like slugs crawling into the exposed light of a timber they are undermining ,so come the self declared atheists gloating over the destruction they think they have caused.Their selfish stupidity won't allow the atheist to see that they will be the first casualties of their own deceptions.In order to be a self ordained atheist, you first have to lie to yourself.God bless

    September 20, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Sid

      Spineless coward herbie talking about morals. Now that's rich.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      Siddy, hows life in left field?Remember if a ball comes your way try to toss it back to the real players ,o.k.?God bless

      September 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • Sid

      herbie is a spineless coward.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Don

      Please stop trolling.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  19. when

    @ HS. Good evening! I know. They are blinded. They even think Jesus claimed He would return in the first century. After two weeks on this blog, I've realized they really don't want answers. They want to argue. So much hatred and pride, and they think they can make a better world. Keep on keepin on, Heaven Sent. Always a joy to see your posts and God's Word never comes back void. May you have a blessed evening in our beautiful Lord Jesus. Praise God for your faithfulness!

    September 20, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Sid

      What a load of cr-ap from when. "Blinded", no. We can reason. You deluded folk can't. Commit to a date or your "predictions"aren't worth sh!t.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      siddys mad and i'm glad
      cause i know how to please him
      a bottle of wine to make him shine and somebody fat
      to squeeze him
      God bless

      September 20, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • Sid

      herbie is a spineless coward. He gets a bit shaken up when people point out the idiocies of his beliefs.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Answer

      The same Herby who is a hater himself calling someone else mad? That's so rich Herby.

      Remember your massive rants of hate earlier this week or would you care to see your own words once again? You're such a deluded ass. It would be very kind of you to off yourself for the betterment of this world.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  20. John Richardson

    I suspect that this next decade will see an even larger decline.

    September 20, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
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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.