Thriving and surviving were two contrasting trends experienced by U.S. congregations in 2015, according to a report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s Faith Communities Today (FACT) initiative.

The report is based on surveys of congregations across the U.S., which FACT has conducted in 2000, 2008, 2010 and 2015.

“The overriding conclusion of the FACT2010 report: American congregations enter the second decade of the new century a bit less healthy than they were at the turn of the century,” the report noted. “Against this backdrop the last five years captured in the 2015 survey might be characterized as: More of the same, but a little less so and with a few interesting twists.”

A steady decline in average weekly worship attendance – from 129 (2005) to 105 (2010) to 80 (2015) – has resulted in a majority of surveyed congregations (57.9 percent) having fewer than 100 in worship gatherings for the first time in the survey’s history.

In addition, the percentage of congregation that grew by 2 percent or more in the past five years has declined to 44.9 percent – from 49.6 percent in 2010 and 57.5 percent in 2005.

The exceptions are “congregations with racial/ethnic majorities,” FACT noted, as 53.6 percent of these congregations experienced growth in 2015, compared to 29 percent of white majority churches. Even so, racial/ethnic congregations were seeing less growth than in 2010.

New suburbs saw the most 2 percent or greater church growth (59.3 percent) in the past five years, compared to 43.7 percent of churches growing at this rate in other locations (rural, town, city, older suburb).

Growing congregations were typically younger, with 47.5 percent having less than a third of the congregation aged 65 plus.

The FACT survey revealed four additional qualities exhibited by many growing congregations:

1. Laity involvement – 90.1 percent of growing churches had a lot of lay-engagement.

2. Distinguished identity – 57.5 percent were perceived as very different from other congregations in their area.

3. Low levels of conflict – 53.8 percent had some but no serious conflict in the past five years.

4. Innovative worship – 53.2 percent had very innovative worship.

While laity engagement corresponded highly to congregational growth, FACT found that “only 14 percent of congregations say their laity are quite or very involved in recruitment.”

The report commented, “Laity’s willingness to get involved … is one of the key reality checks in any congregational growth strategy.”

Changes in church finances were mixed.

The percentage of congregations experiencing financial difficulty declined for the first time since 2000 – moving from 17.8 percent in 2010 to 16.2 percent in 2015.

Yet, over the same period, fewer congregations retained a full-time pastor (62.2 percent in 2015, a 9.2 percent decline from 2010) and the median church budget was $125,000 (a $25,000 drop since 2010).

Theologically, there was an increase in the number of congregations that identify as very conservative, coupled with a decline of churches in the middle of the spectrum.

Very conservative churches rose to 33.4 percent (a 5.9 point increase from 2010), while somewhat conservative congregations declined 1.6 points to 36.7 percent and moderate churches 3.1 points to 22.2 percent.

Liberal congregations continue to represent a small portion of U.S. congregations, with 5.4 percent self-identifying as somewhat liberal and 2.3 percent as very liberal.

The full report is available here.

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