A majority of the roughly 350,000 faith communities in the U.S. are small and experiencing declines in attendance, according to the Faith Communities Today report published Oct. 14.
From 2000 to 2020, the median average attendance among all faith communities dropped from 137 to 65. Worship attendance reported by participating congregations in the 2020 survey was: 1-50 people in 44% of congregations, 51-100 in 25%, 101-250 in 21% and 251 or more in 10%.
Currently, a majority (69%) of faith communities have 100 or fewer attending weekly worship, a 24% increase in the number of congregations this size from 2000 and up 11% from 2015.
The research was conducted, and the report was created, by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace based on data from a survey of over 15,000 congregations from 80 denominations and religious groups.
Responses were received in early 2020, with 58% arriving before March 15 and 42% soon after that date. So, the data reflects the pre-pandemic conditions of U.S. congregations.
“Taken as a whole, this 2020 picture of congregational life can be viewed as a baseline for what was, and a waypoint marker to assess what changes might come to pass post-pandemic,” the report said. “Much that is written about the possible effects of Covid-19 suggests that, if anything, the pandemic will hasten the pre-existing trends and factors rather than completely recreate the social situation.”
While the vast majority (90%) of congregations have 250 or fewer people, a majority (70%) of all worship attendees go to services at the 10% of faith communities with 251 or more people. The remaining 30% of attendees nationwide are engaged with the 90% of congregations with 250 or fewer people.
In 2020, a majority (52%) of U.S. faith communities said their membership had declined in the last five years, with 27% of congregations reporting a 25% or greater drop and 25% seeing a decline of less than 25%.
By comparison, 14% of congregations said membership was stable, while 34% said they have seen an increase, with 11% of faith communities reporting growth up to 25% and 23% growth of over 25%.
Since 2015, only Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish faith communities have seen higher worship attendance, rising 25% to a median worship size of 90 by 2020. Overall, 60% of non-Christian faith communities reported growth of 5% or more in the past five years.
By comparison, Mainline Protestant congregations saw a 12.5% drop to a median attendance of 50, Catholic and Orthodox a 9.11% decline to 400 and Evangelical Protestants a 5.4% drop to 65 during this five-year period.
Only 34% of congregations reported membership growth of 5% or more in the past five years, continuing a two-decade decline from 2000 when 53% of faith communities reported such growth.
The smallest congregations have also seen the greatest membership declines in the past five years. A majority (65%) of faith communities with 1-50 members reported a 5% or greater decline, followed by 45% of those with 51-100 members, 43% with 101-250, 38% with 251-500, 36% with 501-1500 and 17% of those with 1500 or more.
“Overall, the portrait shows a majority of congregations are growing older, smaller, and, by many measures, less vital,” the report said.
Additional reports focused on particular findings and data sets will be released during the next two years, according to a press release announcing the report.
The full report is available here.