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. Nathan R. Hale

    Maybe it's because the Church keeps denying membership to members of the LGBT community. There are many LGBT Christians and Affirming Churches are thriving. The Mainstream Christian Church will continue to die if they continue to discriminate against an entire class of people.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:15 am |
    • Will

      Christianity is clear on the subject: be straight, and make lots of straight babies. Have a full quiver (Psalm 127:5). Don't worry about any of that clap trap about exponential population growth that will cause plenatary starvation within the next century. After all, He will return any day now.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:18 am |
    • Nostradamus

      it's not the church discriminating against a certain group of people ... it's God - the church is just following his message ... it is pretty clear what His thoughts are on the subject matter ... when He says abominable, He means just that ... so to me LGBT Christianity is a laughable concept ... there are many spiritualities out there that would be more conforming and non-discriminating ... their deity or nonexistance of any would seem to be a better fit ...

      September 21, 2011 at 4:34 am |
    • Justicar

      This is patent nonsense. Churches have spent centuries discriminating and have fared none the worse for it. There are some LGBT members who are religious. Where I live almost none are. Then again, I live in Washington state where we have the highest per capita number of libraries in the states. And the highest per capita number of atheists as well.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:36 am |
  2. Myths To Live By

    The fool says in his heart, "There is no God" (Psalms 14:1). The much more dangerous and to be feared fool says, "There is no God but mine".

    September 21, 2011 at 4:09 am |
    • Will

      Blasphermer! If only I had a direct line to the boss, like they did in the good old times. I'd sick a pair of she-bears on you in a second. We all can agree that it's better to rip children to pieces, leaving their little half-eaten fingers strewn across the dusty road, than to have somebody poke fun at some old dude who apparently has some place important to go to spread his important propaganda.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:23 am |
  3. DiscipleofElijah

    Yes, there has been a movement away from religion, but this was prophesied by the Apostle Paul as a sign of the end times. Paul prophesied Godlessness in the last days in II Timothy 3:1-5, 7. Paul also prophesied apostasy in the last days in I Timothy 4:1-3.

    I personally believe that we are living in the "end times" and there is much Bible prophecy to support my personal belief. People are free to believe, or not believe as they choose.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:43 am |
    • Andrew

      People have been crying out "end times" throughout history, long before Christianity, and long after it dies out. You know, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:55 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Does it never bother you people that you are parroting a 2000-year-old tradition of thinking that NOW is the end time (whenever "now" happens to be), when every single other person in all of history who's thot the same thing has been 100% wrong? Why do you continue to fall for this scam? What makes you think that the present is any different from, say, 50 CE, or 1000, or 1844, or 1945, or May 21 of this year? Every single eschatological "prophecy" has always been wrong. Always! Every one of them! Why do you continue to bet on this dead horse? Can you really be that dumb?

      September 21, 2011 at 4:04 am |
    • Will

      Yes. Apparently they can be that dumb.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:07 am |
    • V01D

      Hey Elijah,
      Go up, thou bald head.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:13 am |
    • Al

      Jesus, here we go again with the EOT bull. Maybe you guys should just end your time and leave the rest of us out of it.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:14 am |
    • Justicar

      I personally believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster will not let the false god of the bible harm us. His noodly appendage protects us day in and day out.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:37 am |
  4. RichardSRussell

    The article doesn't say whether the study attempts to find reasons for the decline, and I suppose it would be hard to get honest answers in any case, but I hypothesize that 9/11 opened a lot of eyes to the dangers of religious fanaticism, regardless of which religion it happened to be.
    As the bumper sticker has it, "Science flies you to the Moon, religion flies you into buildings", and I suspect a lot of people have finally figured this out.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:30 am |
    • Mathilda

      Americans can never reach the stars because you became immoral.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:41 am |
    • FFantastic

      You're an idiot.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:55 am |
    • Andrew

      Actually I think it has a lot more to do with cutting space funding and our remarkably poor education system, but that's just me.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:56 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      FFantastic, it would be helpful if you'd (a) say who you're addressing and (b) provide some reasoning behind your diagnosis of idiocy.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:08 am |
    • Lin

      Would you acknowledge that there is a difference between faith and fanaticism? There are many good things that someone with a sick mind can find a way to twist and per_vert into something evil, just like there is a difference between someone who enjoys the occasional hamburger and someone who eats fast food 5 times a day and eventually has to be lifted out of their house via a forklift. It is extremely unfair to paint everyone with the same brush. There are people who use their faith to help others, and there are people who ABUSE faith in order hurt others.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:17 am |
    • John Richardson

      @Lin I feel there is a big difference between faith and fanaticism. The problem is that people like the apostle Paul and several other biblical writers were fanatics. Those who take their writings as the literal word of god are ipso facto also fanatics. Christianity and other religions have a brutal history of vicious subjugation of those who disagree. Christianity has been largely defanged in the west due to the rise of secular humanism and a post-enlightment political philosophy that keeps religion at bay. Under this influence, some Christian denominations have dropped the fanaticism and are quite civilized. But others continue to battle against the enlightenment principles that have created the modern world and seek to drag us back into the dark ages. These groups must be opposed.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  5. Dear American Christians

    Fact: America still has vitality with a possibility of bouncing back. The last nation of hope in the entire West. It's Europe that is humanly-speaking permanently and hopelessly dying off. Asia, Africa, and the Islamic land have unprecedented growth of Christian faith in spite of grueling persecutions. The Holy Spirit is moving everywhere powerfully in the last days. American Christians, take heart. God owns the universe. God is in control and He is saving His people everywhere even today. Just continue your own battles for righteousness courageously in your land. There was never an easy era or easy place for any true Christian. We all have our own assignments where we are planted. Jesus our King will come back at the nick of time. We just should never give up or dwell in sins but keep looking up to Jesus till the very end. Revelation 22:7-21 is only true.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:28 am |
    • OhPleaseYerKillinMeSTOP

      That you really believe this is a tribute both to the power of brainwashing and Santayana (who wrote "people who forget history are doomed to repeat it"). Your salesmen have been peddling this same marketing scam of fear and stupidity for five thousand years and clearly – like the ubiquitous lifetime guarantees on mail order appliances – it still works and rakes in the dough from the most anxious and least intelligent among us. Now just stop telling your betters how to live their lives and start paying your property taxes on your crystal cathedrals and I'll have no beef with you. Enjoy your fairy tales and nightmares,

      September 21, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • Will

      The God of the New (and Old) also condemns otherwise decent people to an eternity of the most horrid, excrutiating torture, simply for not groveling before him. There's nothing respectable, let alone worthy of adoration, about such a petty, jealous being.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:41 am |
    • Mathilda

      God conducts justice on earth. It's atheists who tortured humanity most brutally. Secular Americans are ignorant because they never study actual history but only watch movies and cartoons.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:43 am |
    • Will

      Mathilda...all opinion, no fact. No supporting information for your claims. Is this what passes for "debate" where you come from?

      September 21, 2011 at 3:48 am |
    • Mathilda

      Will, immigrate to North Korea and see what your fellow atheists do to humans. Most atheistic nations were taken down by Christians 20 years ago because atheists were absolutely crazy. You Americans never read the Russian literature and are 100 years behind from Russians on atheism effects. You can deceive fellow ignorant Westerners but not the rest of mankind. We had more than enough from atheists for the longest time.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:56 am |
    • Andrew

      That you equate atheists to those who support totalitarian regimes is pretty indicative of your own knowledge regarding the subject. Hitler and Stalin both had mustaches, you know. Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean I'd support a brutal dictatorship. Just like how just because someone is a Catholic doesn't mean they support Hitler. Most western atheists happen to love freedom of religion, we just think religion is silly. Few of us are totalitarians at heart.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:01 am |
    • Will

      You seem to be laboring under the misguided notion that atheism is synonymous with Communism. I doubt that such an ingrained and false presumption can be effectively corrected in this forum, but suffice to say that such a connection is comparable to the notion that Christianity is is synonymous with Catholicism's power-hungry Crusades that needlessly cost the lives of countless Christians and Muslims during the middle ages. Don't debate history and theology unless you know what you're talking about.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:01 am |
    • Justicar

      Mathilda, there are indeed some horrible atheists out there. They should be stopped. Now, back to the issue at hand, the god of Abraham had a series of books published in which he details how he drowned every human on the planet except for one family. And christians, jew, and muslims all worship this monster. The difference between that god and North Korea is that most of the world doesn't worship its leaders as being moral role models. Christians, jews, and muslims all worship a god whose crimes are so egregious as to make even the most ambitious of psychopaths as Stalin, and Hitler (combined even) seem like underachievers by comparison.

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

      Andrew, are you Richard Dawkins posting in disguise?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • John Richardson

      The loss of religion means a gain in true vitality!

      September 21, 2011 at 6:58 am |
  6. *frank*

    Local school board ends ban on Slaughterhouse Five
    15 hrs ago
    KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) – A school board in southwest Missouri on Monday restored two books it had banned from public schools for being contrary to teachings in the Bible.
    The Republic School Board voted 6-0 to make the two books – "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Twenty Boy Summer" – available to students for independent reading as long as they are kept in a secure section of the school library.
    Only parents or guardians can check them out.
    For all you f'ing idiots who always say "I dont understand why you atheists are on a belief blog", things like the above are one of many very very important reasons.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:26 am |
    • Will

      Maybe I'm just confused, but I don't know what you're talking about...So some school board people banned some books, then later lifted the ban, and now...huh?

      Try again, but express your ideas more clearly.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:45 am |
    • playing dumb I see.

      They are still banned, Will. Illegally, too, I might add. They didn't lift the ban, they just shifted it a little.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:54 am |
    • John Richardson

      Yeah, you're confused, Will. Stupid people often are.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:59 am |
  7. RichardSRussell

    In related developments, sales of snake oil are also way off.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:23 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>“sales of snake oil are also way off.”

      Naaah..... If snake oil will work in a FlexFuel GMC Suburban....you will have soccer moms wrestling King Cobras down to fill their gas tanks. 🙂

      September 21, 2011 at 3:26 am |
  8. McKinley

    People need to chill about church's asking for money. If their anything like mine then they collect money to pay for the building and land for people to meet in and the rest in put into local charities. If yours isn't like that then maybe you should consider changing and if you think that they just take it to be greedy then you need to stop being so ignorant.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • A Preacher

      Last time I checked, grocery stores ask for money every time I walk into them. So do gas stations, governments, sports stadiums, etc., etc., etc. People who support their churches financially generally do so joyfully, even sacrificially because they see the benefits their church provides to its members and community.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:51 am |
  9. Mathilda

    In the same decade, USA was made #26 from #1.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:07 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      In what?

      September 21, 2011 at 3:23 am |
    • Mathilda

      In everything.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:25 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Ah. Funny I didn't see that straightaway.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:33 am |
    • Mathilda

      Rick, it's respect. Americans were highly(in fact the bestly) respected last century. Though you've been bad towards the latter part of the last century, you lost most of your meaningful honor by being ungodly last decade.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:39 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I bow before your ability to quantify respect and look forward to reading your doctoral dissertation on the subject.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:10 am |
    • Andrew

      See Richard, isn't she cute?

      September 21, 2011 at 4:14 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      The bestliest!

      September 21, 2011 at 4:21 am |
  10. Stan

    The one thing that really hurts the churches is the fact that the vast majority of them WANT to stay in debt so that they can keep asking their members for money. I don't understand why churches can't at some point become financially self-supporting. I know why churches insist that people go to worship services all the time, it's so they can badger people for money. Jesus wasn't obsessed with having money, quite the opposite.

    Churches have also accepted divorced people of all ranks into their fold. I have nothing personal against divorced people, but quite frankly it is simply better to live together than to take an oath to God that you will stay with each other till death, and then break it.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  11. Lance

    I am disappointed the pastafarians were not included in this survey. If they had been, I think you would find religion is still quite strong in this country. Ramen.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:56 am |
    • Will

      Lance, although (with great effort) I support your right to believe whatever (silly Pastafarian thing) you want, my heart aches for your misguided spiritual shortcomings. In time, all doubt shall be washed away through the astounding wisdom of the Goddess (Blessed Be Her Hooves) and her one true Disciple..RISE AND TRIUMPH, NEW LUNAR REPUBLIC!!!

      September 21, 2011 at 4:30 am |
  12. Ian

    It's because people are smart enough to see through the man-made religious establishment, even if they do have faith in the particular religion.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:54 am |
  13. MySunnyBalentine

    Thats coz all the young people are in the bars and nightclubs too drunk and F'd up the next day to come to church..

    September 21, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • Will

      Modern people are losing interest in Christianity? Maybe it's because more and more people have realized that the magic sky daddy of the stone age doesn't exist, never did exist, and is simply a made up concept to provide comfort to simple-minded, weak-willed peasants. In 500 years, humans will look back and marvel that so many of the quaint humans from the 21st century actually believed...no kidding ACTUALLY BELIEVED...that invisible, magical bugs (angels) flew around doing the work of an invisible, magical tyrant who existed in another dimension, tormenting and rewarding people arbitrarily.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:54 am |
  14. Nathan Maxfield

    people are finally growing up.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:36 am |
  15. B Positive

    What about Hindus? With about 3 million of them in the US they are not exactly 'invisible'. Or are they? And oh by the way, only one in every six people in the world is a Hindu.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:32 am |
  16. hopeactualized

    Hey Mr. Biff,

    God is just an unknown really but there is a process one goes through if they understand humility and submission. Always a balancing, you know? Along the way though, one realizes that there IS an ideal....always. Kinda like there's always been a hierchical structure, whether the hierchy is one of concentric circles or planes that take the place of "levels" or one that is a hierchical way we just have not come up with. It doesnt mean it isnt there. We are all the same. We come from the same place, from the same spirit. How we choose to view perceptions here along our lives' paths, makes the difference. Realizing the importance of striving for an ideal, a bigger vision is imperative, especially in our present day. You don't see as big as I think you probably think, Biff. God exists. Jesus has been etched into history as to who He is. The path, this way, is truly, simply, the more excellent path...to God (or I guess you could call God something else if you wanted if that would make it seem better in your head), Our Source.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  17. KentAZ

    "[...] congregations that were innovative and contemporary showed the highest amount of 'high spiritual vitality.'"

    Translation: Congregations that focused on entertaining the parishioners showed the highest amount of attendance.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      I had to think on your comment and I gotta say that you are sorta right. I have been to churches where they worship singing the same way we did in the cotton fields. I am talk nothing but spirituals sung by the slow beat of foot stomps on the same floorboards of our ancestors. Its good and very emotional to see that type of services but there does come a time when old time churches die off and new ones with more up to date facilities and equipment replace them. My mother's old church down South, if you look out one of the windows on the right side of the sanctuary, you can still see in the distant woods what is left of the outhouse. You go into their dinner hall and it looks the same as when I was younger.

      Is it catering to a newer younger crowd? I see that Yankee Stadium is gone, why, because people wanted newer facilities. Could we say the same for Churches?

      September 21, 2011 at 2:30 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      And Transformers 3 was the year's biggest movie, proving once and for all that quality always bubbles up to the top.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:25 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>“And Transformers 3 was the year's biggest movie, ”

      Umm...I respectfully believe that would be wrong.

      Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 = $1,324,180,123

      Transformers: Dark of the Moon = $1,116,445,642

      September 21, 2011 at 3:31 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Thank you for facts. I sit corrected.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:36 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Can't wait for the latest Transformers to come out on DVD. I missed it in the theaters.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:24 am |
  18. clearfog

    Pray the Sunday away.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:11 am |
  19. same

    But they never report the revivals... nope they will never~

    September 21, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  20. Chris Berry

    Maybe if churches stopped aligning themselves with political, bigoted ideologies people wouldn't be leaving them in droves...

    September 21, 2011 at 2:04 am |
    • Pastor K

      Chris Berry wrote:
      "Maybe if churches stopped aligning themselves with political, bigoted ideologies people wouldn't be leaving them in droves..."

      As an ordained church pastor with 20 years experience I say, AMEN to that!

      September 21, 2011 at 2:20 am |
    • Mathilda

      Never. You just want to silence Christians and create a United States of Sodom.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:24 am |
    • Will

      Perhaps. Scripture decrees that God is unchanging. We all know that. "I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him." (Ecclesiastes 3:14). God decrees that "'But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death'" (Revelations 21: 8). Everybody who doesn't kneel before the Lord will burn forever. That convicted murderer in Nevada? Toast. That thief in Uganda? Done for. Doesn't matter that he was just trying to feed his family. That 12 year old girl from Kabul, who was foolish enough to have been raised Muslim? She's screwed. Burned alive, her soft flesh bubling and disintegrating from her screaming, terrified face, in God's perfect judgment. Or your son, maybe? The one who was a little too rebellious? He should have known better, right? Don't let this frighten you. He chose his path, despite the efforts you put into showing him the Truth of the Word. When he dies, he'll burn forever with that girl from Kabul. And you, along with the rest of the saved, will receive your eternal reward in Heaven.

      Of course, our memories will be wiped once we get there. Otherwise we might get pesetered by the knowledge that the people who loved the most are being forever tortured. Maybe today is the day your son get a spear shoved down his throat, through his stomach and bowels, and out his bottom, slow roasted (again) over a fire and made into a devilish meal for Lucifer's servants. It's just another day for people in Hell. But obviously, we won't have to worry about it. I mean...if we were in Heaven, knowing that our most beloved ones were being forever tormented by our own blessed Redeemer, it wouldn't be much of a Heaven. Actually, living FOREVER with that knowledge would be...kind of a Hell.

      But that's beside the point, so don't look too deep into such questions. Any doubt you might have is simply the work of Satan. Go to Church and believe in God's Word, or the Devil will get you.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:27 am |
    • Andrew

      United states of sodom? Really? You're adorable. I mean that sincerely, it's the whole "good christian slightly bigoted housewife" charm. The end times, repent repent, you atheists are all like stalin and such! It's actually quite quaint, I believe you're not here trolling, you're really just that silly an individual. I could be wrong, and this is a stunning trolling attempt, but I sincerely believe you to be the misguided individual you portray. Good on you, keep the misinformation and ignorance coming, we all need a laugh from time to time.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:12 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.