How congregations are changing

In a recent e-mail from ‘Alban at Duke Divinity School’ I was made aware of a National Congregations Study which has come up with the following ‘six facts about how American congregations are changing’.

  1. People are increasingly concentrated in very large congregations. The average congregation in America is small – and getting smaller, down from an average of 80 regular participants to 70 in 2012 – but the average churchgoer attends a larger congregation, and one in ten churchgoers worships in a multi-site congregation.
  2. There is growing diversity. Ethnic diversity is more likely to occur in larger congregations and those congregations with fewer senior citizens.  Only 11% of churchgoers were in an all-white congregation in 2012 versus nearly 20% in 1998.
  3. Many pastors are bi-vocational. More than a third of solo or senior pastors also hold another job. Nearly 14% of congregations are led by unpaid senior or solo pastoral leaders.
  4. Worship services are becoming more informal and expressive.  Most of the increase in informality has occurred among historically white Protestant churches.  Choirs in mainline congregations are down from 61% to 37%.
  5. People in smaller churches give more money to their churches than do people in larger churches. Far fewer congregations gave money to their denomination in 2012 (63%) than did in 1998 (74%).
  6. Congregations focus more on serving the needy than on trying to effect systemic change. Most congregations (87%) engage in some form of social service, with more than 52% listing food assistance among their four most important social service programmes.  About a third of congregations are politically active, engaging in efforts to promote or prevent social and cultural change. The most common forms of political activity among congregations in 2012 were: advertising opportunities for political activity during worship services (15%), distributing voter guides (13%), and participating in a demonstration or march (13%).

How does the UK compare? To help me in my assessment I asked my friend Peter Brierley for his help:  

  1. According to Peter Brierley, there is an increase in people attending ‘larger’ churches.  In 2015 about 13% of all Anglican worshippers did so at just 170 larger Anglican churches (just over 1% of all churches).  Baptists are not dissimilar: in 2008 10% of Baptists were to be found in 56 larger churches. Over against the larger churches, most churches in the UK are very small:  over 50% of Baptist churches have less than 40 people in worship on a Sunday.
  2. It used to be said that in the USA 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week – thank God things are changing!  In London the vast majority of churches are ethnically diverse – however, according to Peter Brierley this is not so much the case in other big cities like Birmingham.  Furthermore, it is not simply white congregations who do not always welcome people of colour; many of the black-majority churches seem to find it hard to share with white people. 
  3. Although in the Church of England there are many NSMs (non-stipendiary ministers), I am not sure what percentage of Anglican ministers are truly bi-vocational. Instead of clergy getting another job, they are asked to take over yet another church.  However, because of financial constraints Baptists are beginning to take on board the concept of bi-vocational ministry. Indeed, at one English Baptist college the majority of students anticipate becoming bi-vocational ministers. The fact is that a church of 20-30 members does not warrant the services of a ‘full-time’ minister.
  4. Ever since the charismatic renewal of the 1960s and 1970s many evangelical churches have ‘loosened up’ in their worship. With the growth of Messy Church and Fresh Expressions of Church this is even more so.
  5. According to Peter Brierley we see a similar trend in the UK:  “larger churches gather more passengers, and they don’t pay their way”. I confess that I am not so sure – certainly my limited experience would question this generalisation.  It may be true that larger churches gives less per capita to their denominations – but this is often because they are supporting a large number of staff.
  6. I find it interesting how important ‘food banks’ have become in the States. Here in the UK church-sponsored food-banks have mushroomed.  According to the Trussell Trust one million three-day food supplies are now given out every year; and there are 424 food banks in their network. However, I would be surprised if the majority of churches see food banks as one of their primary expressions of social service.  As for political activity, the Church of England used to be called ‘the Tory party at prayer’, but now its leaders as indeed the leaders of all the mainline churches are accused by some of being far too left wing!   Traditionally more ‘liberal’ churches have been more socially engaged, but now ‘radicals’ are just as likely to be ‘evangelicals’.

One trend which appears not to have been mentioned in the American survey has been the change in regularity of church attendance.   ‘Twicers’ used to be those who attended morning and evening; now ‘twicers’ are those who attend twice a month.    

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