National Congregation Study – What is changing among churches today?

29 Feb

The National Congregation Study led by Mark Chaves, sociologist at Duke, and Alison Eagle.  The study included over 3800 participating congregations representing 70+ Christian denominations, plus Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and other religious groups.  The third wave of this report was recently released, and is available at this link.

Here are five observations from the study.

pew and hymnal1.  The Growth of non-denominational churches.

 The number of congregations claiming no denominational affiliation increased from 18% in 1998 to 24% in 2012.  White mainline congregations, and the people in those congregations, are older than the congregations and people of other religious traditions.  I believe that this trend is going to continue as Millennials (and other generations) do not want to be defined by a denominational label or the culture baggage that some denominations carry.

 2.  The Continued Growth of Megachurches.

Most congregations are small, but most people are in large congregations.  People are increasingly concentrated in very large congregations. The average congregation is getting smaller, but the average churchgoer attends a larger congregation.  I believe that many people run to large congregations because they have been hurt by the church, but still love God (a group often referred to as the “Dones”).  These large congregations allow them to remain hidden while spending time worshipping the God they love.

 3.  An Increase in Diversity

There is increasing ethnic diversity over time both among and within American congregations.  Diversity (in ethnicity, socio-economic factors, and religious beliefs) is valued by many younger generations, and so I expect this diversity to increase.  Truly diverse congregations will become magnets for Millennials.    

 4.  A Desire to connect with their Local Community

Food assistance is by far the most common kind of social service activity pursued by congregations, with more than half (52%) of all congregations listing food assistance among their four most important social service programs.  Social action is important to Millennials, and churches should have a clear passion for service within their local communities.  However, serving the poor will take much more than clearing our pantries from an abundance of canned goods.   I fear that many churches pursue this route in order to alleviate guilt over Western consumerism.

 5.  Traditional Boundaries into Leadership are Falling.

 Acceptance of female lay leadership is very widespread, with 79% of congregations allowing women to hold any volunteer position a man can hold, and 86% allowing women to serve on the main governing board.  Congregational acceptance of gays and lesbians as members and lay leaders increased substantially between 2006 and 2012, but acceptance levels vary widely across religious traditions.  Those congregations who restrict leadership for various theological reasons might grow as they gather dissident members of accepting communities.  However, as Millennials and younger generations become the majority of the populous, these restrictive communities may have trouble replacing their aging populations.

(A boundary that I believe needs to change is the restriction of leadership within the church due to age – READ MORE.)

The Spiritual Landscape of America is changing rapidly.  How should your community respond?

David - Prof 2Dr. G. David Boyd is the Founder and Managing Director of EA Resources, a non-profit organization that is driven to educate and equip parents and churches who desire to minister to emerging adults.

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