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. BibleBeliever

    The problem in the church is that it has replaced the Holy Spirit "to draw men unto Him" with music and high tech entertainment. But this is not the main reason "church" has declined. Jesus said if you "abide in Him and obey His Word He will abide (live) in them..." The church left the Word of God 1,900 years ago. Since THEN it's been in decline!

    When the "church" wakes up to this and returns to obeying His Word from Genesis to Revelation it will then begin to grow no matter what the condition of the economy!!

    September 21, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      yeah, well there is a reason it has been out of fashion for 1900 years, I doubt anyone wants to go back to that nonsense.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • yep

      This would be a good issue to bring up in a church setting. But in a public forum like this, no one understands what you're talking about.

      I would disagree. Ultimately the HS does draw people, but Christianity is unique in that it blends into the culture, rather than alienate it. We need to be part of this world.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      well then i guess we just need some good old-timey holy spirit religion

      September 21, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • BibleBeliever

      I'm not talking about dressing or acting like people of centuries past I'm talking about simply obeying God's Word as He says to obey it in "spirit and TRUTH" for instance there is no mention of Christmas or Easter but there is of Sukkot and Passover. The former were inventions of the "early church fathers" to attract converts who were sun god worshippers. It was and is major compromise of mixing the holy (worship of Jesus) with the unholy (worship of the sun god) and this has to stop!

      God will not bless anything or anyone who mixes worship of Him with pagan idols. This is what the church has been doing for over 1,900 years and they are and have been experiencing the judgment for such things!

      September 21, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  2. Brian

    One person get killed in a Adult Strip club and the people demand that they be shut down. The Catholic church has ruined thousands of young boys for the rest of their lives and still they are operating in our country. Do I smell hypocrite?

    September 21, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Alyssa

      There are at least an equal number of girls.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  3. pt6071

    Much as I'd like to say this indicates less religiousness in America I can only see this as a by-product of the recession at the moment. But less time spent in the house of brainwashing certainly isn't bad.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  4. Salty Bob

    In the beginning man created the gods
    The truth about organized religion. I hope you glean a small bit of useful information as I have. What games religion is playing in America and the world today? We live in a country where we can choose for ourselves how much or little Religion we want in our lives, but the followers of most religions just don’t understand the word no. Not in my life not in my schools not in my government, NO, is the choice I have made for me and my family, the following reasons are part of the problem as I see it.
    First: religion is in no way real. The word religion or god is nothing more than an expression or product of human fear and weaknesses or imagination. The Bible/Koran, a collection of ancient myths and stories borrowed from many different cultures over thousands of centuries. Followers of Christianity, Islam, and others want to make decisions for us based on their interpretation of myths and stories from ages past that have change from teller to teller until were left with what we see today.
    These groups' are working hard and spending millions trying to influence our politician to pass laws based on their interpretation of these myths. Trying to convert the USA into a religious state. The only way this will end if things continue as they are is one group will out spend another and gain control in instant we could be living in the United Sates of Islam, sounds kinda funny but there are at the moment 2 sects with the money it will take to make the leap and crush the Wall of Separation. The Wall of Separation is supposed to protect us from all religions infringement upon our schools teachings of science to find real truth and knowledge. Not try and recruit our kids with fairytales or with some aged dogma from an era long dead, our children deserve better.
    Second: Organized Religions have overstepped their boundaries on many occasions. It divides us as a people to choose ignorance over logic, to forsake the future for a ruthless past. Religion started with early mans rites and ceremonies to honor nature, it grew into Charlemagne outright murder of the innocent in the name of Christianity, to jets crashing into towers killing thousands in the name of Islam. The time of burning witches, belief in a flat earth, the murdering of doctors, and crimes against women and children or the followers of gods many other immoral and vile acts against humanity as a whole can no longer and should no longer be tolerated, no matter what religious book or god they believe demands it, religious leaders must be held to account for the acts of its followers.
    Third: Coerced observance is the main method these groups use. Worship me or you will be tortured in a pit of fire for all eternity or, murdered outright. Fear mongering, tyranny, Remember the Dark Ages religions rule in that dark, distant past did not serve our ancestors well. Many of these groups place supernatural abilities on some of their members, kinda like the early versions of super heroes, born of a virgin nice trick or walk on water, hmm or cure the blind and sick shamans come to mind, super strength Hercules so many more. Throughout history you will find many who have claimed special abilities or feats. From every religious group again more fairytales entertainment for people who had very little else to do and lots of free time for the mind to wonder. No interpretation no matter how subtle can change the fact that their holy books are nothing more than a collection stories meant to entertain or teach something to the children or control people of that era nothing more.
    Fourth: We put our trust in our elected officials to maintain the wall of separation, to prevent religions ever-reaching grasp from tainting the consideration of new laws! This country was not founded on the rule of anyone's religion, but more the lack of religious influence in the governing of this country. But time and again you hear religious overtones spouting out of our leaders, and wannabe leaders, the wall is crumbling.
    If anyone of good conscience should agree with what I have said band together, so we can bring this country the very world we live on into the 21st century free of these groups and revel in all the promise this century has to offer so our children's children's children can look back in pride and say they did this for us and our posterity. This is after all a very small world and a great leaping point into the vast unknown. I so hope more minds are opened and see beyond the centuries of engrained dogma. I just hope we have not destroyed it all by that time.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • yep

      What you are saying is completely double standard. You've made a decision to say no, but ive made one to say yes.

      So how come you insist that we get rid of religion. You have your rights, and I have mine.

      I dont get people who want to "get rid of religion." First it sounds like nazism, lets just get rid of the "weaker links." Second how do you justify your right to say no while denying my right to say yes?

      You guys brag about logic. Maybe you should use some of it.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:54 am |

      Hebrews 9:27 “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”

      I am sorry you feel this way. I don't believe in Religion, but in the one and only true God of the universe and his name is Jehovah. I have experienced his presence, love, grace, mercy, and salvation in my own life despite the “bad things” that have happened to me; and cannot deny his sovereignty. I hope and pray that He becomes real in your life and you accept Jesus’ death and resurrection as payment in full for your sins. The gospel has been around for thousands of years and has been under attack every one of those years. No one can destroy the word of God as it is eternal, and God and his ways are beyond human logic and reason. Intellectual pride and religious legalism have kept many from coming to the Lord, however I pray that is not your down fall as you are hurting your family by passing down your tradition of unbelief. As the beginning of all knowledge and wisdom is to fear the Lord. Hebrews 9:27 “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” NIV God cannot lie…

      September 21, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  5. Zeke2112

    Let me get this straight: you believe that a supreme bring who loves you created you with sin and dropped you down on this Earth to fend for yourself. You get to face murder and horror from his other perfect creations, and he never once comes down from on high to comfort you. Yet you must believe in him and worship him, or else he'll love you so much that he sends you to burn for all eternity! You must also consume his body and drink his blood, and give your money to flawed mortal men. Or he'll love you so much that you'll burn forever! All this from a perfect being that apparently loves to watch his creations suffer and refuses to step in with compassion despite his omnipotence?

    If a parent on Earth did this, they'd be dragged to jail for child abuse, neglect, and possibly attempted murder.

    Am I getting this right?

    September 21, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Chuckles

      You left out the fact that right now we're living in a time of "grace" right? So this is supposed to be the good time before sh.it really goes wrong because god loves us so much.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • George

      No, you did not get it right. Not even close. Dig a little deeper.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Zeke2112

      George, my wife is a practicing Catholic. I challenge you to refute that any of what I said is not explicitly stated during mass and spelled out clearly in the bible. Go ahead. I'll wait.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  6. hmmm

    Let the GOP back and let them have their way....churches will fill up again.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • The Dude

      I believe they are the biggest cause of the decline.

      One good thing they have do.

      Normal people are not attracted to intolerance and hate.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  7. Conclusion

    America is declining and dying.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      I guess Christians aren't praying enough.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  8. On my knees for God's pleasure

    The Enlightenment began a few centuries ago.

    People still believe in god now?

    September 21, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  9. All Religion Is Evil

    Great news! Less religion is better for people's mental health. Promoting fantasy and insanity is not "healthy" as the author implies. Live a good life while you can because there's nothing outside of that. There's no evidence that any of us are more than the result of our physical existence, so there's no "soul", no "heaven", no "hell", and no "god". None of us will exist to experience anything beyond our death – the whole idea of an "afterlife" is an oxymoron.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • gdelirium


      September 21, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Lacking Evidence since 14 Billion BCE


      September 21, 2011 at 10:00 am |

      I WILL pray for you that one day you will realize that there is a God and there is a heaven befiore its to late. God loves you and you probably have been through some rough times in your life and you seem like there was no help and have confusion and anger built up but if you call upon the Lord and ask him to help you and save your soul he will. but i have to say in the Bible .. Gods word said he will forgive anyone for anything EXCEPT BLASPHMY which you can look that word up and see what it means. I know why people say there is no God and heaven cause they have never experienced his touch and i have to say as a Christian i have felt his touch and he has answered so many prayers and i have seen miracles before my eyes and when you feel or see that you know he is real. its really sad to sit here and read these comments about our God that has made everything on this earth and every human being. yeah i know not all churches do what they are suppose to do but the Bible also says that we need to look out for the false prophets and the ones that are just after popularity,money , i go to a wonderful holiness church and have the best preacher in my eyes someone can have. we suppport missionaries all over the world to help other people. we go to the home of the innocence and help the homeless out and as well the nursing home the ones that cant get out and have no family members and sing to them ,make them food,have church there and they love it. one day i really hope AMERICA wakes up and realizes we are a blessed nation and the Bible says that if my people would change from thier wicked ways and pray i will heal thier land. God is so good and i pray that everyone will find the same peace and happiness as i have before its to late and found out it is real and they wished they would had listened . God bless you and the others here on this post. JOhn 3:16

      September 21, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Alyssa

      "you probably have been through some rough times in your life and you seem like there was no help and have confusion and anger built up"

      Believers can't understand a person being an atheist even when this is not true. I have been through no such rough times. I am not confused or angry. I merely see no evidence for a god, and instead see many attempts at forceful brainwashing to believe something that cannot be proved. We don't deny god in revenge for some past wrong. There is no god to deny.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Zeke2112

      Go'd Child: I've been through cancer, broken relationships, hangnails, depression, family deaths, financial woes, and common colds. I've pulled through all of these from support from my friends and family and perseverance. Not once did I ask for aid from a fairy tale. I am not thrilled with the idea of dying, but I am not afraid of non-existence.

      Keep your god and your crazy peers. When you've figured out how to run your own affairs and stop butting into the government, the lives of those dying from HIV in Africa, and the lives of child parishioners, then you can come back and offer a truce with the rest of us.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  10. yuppster103

    Thank god....(pun intended) Now only if we could tax the big ones...

    September 21, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Lacking Evidence since 14 Billion BCE

      Religion is not non-profit. Just look at the pastors driving 100K cadies.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  11. tacc2

    Good. I hope they continue to decline. The sooner we're rid of religion, the sooner we can start doing things (as a society) based on logic and science instead of faith.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • hippypoet

      be careful, this crowd gets an evil glare on whenever anyone mentions logic or science!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  12. Whatevs

    I'll believe in an unseen god over the miserable state of humanity any day.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Zeke2112

      The same unseen god that created miserable humanity in his own image and refuses to step in despite his love and omnipotence? Good luck with that.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  13. mike

    the sooner we remove the cancer that is religion the sooner the human race can progress, evolve and grow to respect eachother.. wishful thinking, I know.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Frank

      You talk about religion as a cancer, but talk about respect in the same sentence. The irony here is that what you've done is actually described in the Bible. "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be." – James 3:9-10

      September 21, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Zeke2112

      Actually, what Mike said is quoted in the Book of Flour and Eggs, 8:15:

      "Lo, his great noodly intellect came to the conclusion that religion is indeed a cancer, and he released all his followers to live a life of independence and free thought. Ramen."

      See? I can quote goofy spiritual literature written by men too. Quoting the bible for your views provides zero credibility outside of christianity.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  14. hippypoet


    "How about we burn your house down and build a church in it's place or a hospital or a homeless shelter?"

    thats fine, i will help build the homeless shelter... then i have a new place to live being i am newly homeless, and plus – roomies!

    September 21, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  15. Really?

    Although I am a believer, I am a believer in my OWN terms. Religion is something ingrained in you (and in your society) the same way as the "culture" on which you are raised. So if you were born in a muslim society, you would swear by them, but if budhist is your family, hey, budhist you would be. If you accept ofher cultures you also must accept other religions, but in the end, I shun the control that they try to impose. If I feel like helping them, I do, but if I feel not helping them, I am as happy as well. I enjoy life and helping others, and I am not ashamed of any "so-called sins" that one might have. Live long and prosper.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  16. On my knees for God's pleasure

    The bible will turn people atheist faster than anything.

    I guess people actually started listening to the preachers and stared to actually read all of that mythological nonsensical irritancy that the bible has to offer.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • yep

      Im a christian, but you gotta stop making silly names like that.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      As a good christian, I know that the entire universe was created by god so that He could have the H0mo Spaien species praying and grovelling as abject slaves on their knees to him. I am doing it for his pleasure everyday and night.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  17. us1776

    People are done with these archaic "Invisible Being" cults !!

    Religions are a relic of our ignorant past.

    Rulers needed people to believe in an all-knowing, all powerful invisible being so that rulers could keep their populations under control even at great distances.


    September 21, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  18. gager

    My thoughts are that god sends grovellers and suckups to hell, and atheists will find a place in heaven.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • William Demuth

      No self respecting Athiest would attend.

      To me, heaven is hell!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • hippypoet

      @William Demuth

      "heaven is hell" isn't that a black sabbath song? oh the irony!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • cero

      I don't believe in hell, how 'bout Los Angeles?

      September 21, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • William Demuth


      I believe LA is Hades. Home of El Diablo. He heads the southern cartel, who compete with the Guidos in Rome.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Alyssa

      Heaven is Fenway Park.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  19. miked77

    People are walking away from the myths and nonsense of their childhood. We realize hoe implausible religion is in modern life. Unfortunately when we die, it goes dark, lights out, I would rather face that truth than spend a lifetime trying to get myself to believe absurd lies.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  20. jim

    People have woke up, church is BIG Business, tax free income...they expect you to fork over 10% and more of your income. If the pastor's wife does not like you, then other people will start not to like you and you become invisible, no fellowship even though lots of it is superficial. Friendships real ones are hard to develop. Everything is centered around money and entertainment, the word of God preached is watered down with jokes and amusements that are out of place. There are a few good churches doing their assignment well but it is a struggle to find them in the maze.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Caral From SoCal

      Please don't paint with quite such a wide brush. I have worked for various non-profits and churches as a bookkeeper for years. Now, the churches I attend and work for are "medium-sized" – with attendance between 250-600 per Sunday. I suspect this is where the majority of churches in America fall. Every dime taken in is budgeted for ministry. While some churches manage to have a savings account, it is inherent in a non-profit's status that NO ONE makes a profit! Churches exist to serve. Most serve the Lord by serving their community, supporting relief locally and globally, and running programs that help families, children, and adults. At my church we have everything from AA and other 12 step, to studies for those in grief, those who need help raising children, benevolence help for those struggling to meet bills. NO church can turn a profit – although, obviously, some who garner far too much attention seem to be self-serving, or maybe the pastor just makes a huge, unreasonable salary. Take heart, Jim. I am on the front lines as a specialist in church accounting. It isn't the majority that are the problem – MOST churches are struggling along through the recession with decreased giving, trying to increase their helpfulness to those in need. Problem is that the bad apples really stink.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Moderatemom

      Jim, I agree. I'm a spiritual person and I do believe in God. I find that organized religion brings out the worst in some people and becomes just another badge for someone to wear. I was raised as a Catholic and find that religion to be among the worst with their extraordinary riches, closed society and willingness to turn a blind eye to the abuse of children. I'm assuming most of the power base in that church must be atheist deep down because, if not, they've gotta realize that there is a nice warm place waiting for them on the other side. I'd like to see the churches do more for the truly needy rather than building up their power base.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • William Demuth

      Caral From SoCal

      How much has your church paid out to quiet the molested children?

      How much illegal political speech from the altar does your preacher engage in?

      How much taxes have you paid?

      September 21, 2011 at 9:56 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.