More mixed news about American churches: Over the last decade, they’ve gotten grayer, smaller, and poorer. On the other hand, they’re more tech-savvy, innovative in worship and run more people-oriented ministries.
This good news-bad news comes courtesy of a 10-year study by Hartford Seminary. Called "A Decade of Change in American Congregations," the program studied 11,077 churches, a fair chunk of the 350,000-plus churches in the U.S.
Here are some highlights.
Fewer members: Church attendance has fallen, with 108 attending a typical worship service, versus 130 a decade ago. And more than a quarter of all American congregations see fewer than 50 on a Sunday.
Older members: In "Oldline Protestant" churches, as the Hartford report calls them, only 10 percent of the members are young adults. (Black and ethnic congregations tend to be younger.) As the report says, the older a congregation gets, the more it resists change.
Less funds: Only 14 percent of congregations reported "excellent financial health," less than half the 31 percent in 2000.
More fights: Nearly two of every three congregations was the site of a conflict in 2010. Sometimes it ended with people leaving or withholding donations.
Hartford religion professor David Roozen, who oversaw the study, said it shows that churches are "under stresses of historic proportions."
"They continue to be key players in society, but they need to be more intentional in their worship and response to conflict," he said in a statement. He added that churches must be open to technological innovation and the growing racial and ethnic diversity in America.
The full results are in a free report on the FACT website.
The findings dovetail those of the "State of the Church," announced in July by the California-based Barna Group. That report, covering 20 years, found a general slide in adult church attendance and volunteer work at churches had fallen. Most people also told Barna they didn’t don’t normally read the Bible or trust it to be totally accurate.
There were some positive findings in each study, though. In the Barna report, 84 percent of Americans call themselves Christian, and half say they’ve made a "personal commitment" to Jesus. The Hartford study found that churches were increasingly using technology, trying innovative worship styles and holding interfaith meetings.
I bounced some of these details off the Rev. Rebecca Stephenson. Her church, First Congregational of Fort Lauderdale, is what the Hartford study would call "Old Line Protestant." However, in her nearly three years there, Sunday attendance has gone from 50 to 120.
How has she done it? For one, by prodding each member into providing some community service: hospice visits, homeless shelter volunteering, etc.
"The traditional structure from 1950 to the 1970s was about maintaining the church," Stephenson says. "Now it's more about finding your gift and grace and using it outside the church."
This is more than service, she says. "Churches that reach out have a chnc of surviving. Churches that don’t change will die."
James D. Davis