By Aaron Earls
The average U.S. church and the average U.S. churchgoer are headed in opposite directions. Congregations are increasingly small, while remaining churchgoers are increasingly headed toward larger churches.
The 2020 Faith Communities Today (FACT) study of more than 15,000 U.S. religious congregations revealed that 7 in 10 U.S. churches have 100 or fewer weekly worship service attendees, while 7 in 10 U.S. churchgoers attend a church with more than 250 each week.
While the average U.S. congregations gathers in a building that seats around 200, only 65 attend the median church each week. This means that half of all churches have fewer than 65 people in their weekly worship service.The average U.S. congregation sees 65 people gather each week, according to the 2020 FACT study. Click To Tweet
In the last 20 years, the average attendance has been more than cut in half. Dropping in each FACT study, the median worship service attendance among U.S. congregations has declined from 137 in 2000.
The U.S. religious landscape is increasingly dominated by smaller congregations. In 2000, 45% of churches had fewer than 100 in weekly attendance. Now, that number has climbed to 65%.
This is due in part to fewer congregations reporting significant growth in the past five years. In 2000, 53% of churches were growing by 5% or more. That has declined in each FACT study and fallen to only 34% today. In fact, more than half of churches (52%) now say they are declining by at least 5%.
Some Christian traditions are experiencing decline more rapidly than others, but all are declining in weekly attendance on average. The median worship service for Catholic and Orthodox congregations is 400, a decline of more than 9% from 2015. Evangelical Protestant churches average 65 in their worship services, dropping more than 5% in the past five years.
Mainline Protestant congregations have the smallest churches and have felt the largest percentage decline. On average, 50 people gather each week at a mainline church, a drop of 12.5% since 2015.More than half of churches (52%) say they are declining by at least 5%, while just 34% say they are growing by 5% or more, according to the 2020 FACT study. Click To Tweet
A 2019 Lifeway Research study of all Protestant churches found 28% noted a decline of 6% or more in the past three years, 33% said their church remained within 5%, and 39% reported growth of 6% or more.
The larger a church is, the more likely it is to be growing, according to the FACT study. There are churches at every size, however, that have demonstrated sustained growth, including 21% of congregations with fewer than 50 people.
The FACT study also tracks other levels of church health, including spiritual vitality, congregants living out their faith, and the absence of conflict. Many of those indicators were spread across churches of all sizes.
Opportunities and disadvantages across the size spectrum
Analyzing the data, researchers at Faith Communities Today discovered distinct advantages and challenges for churches at each size level.
Smaller churches (those with 100 or fewer each week) have high levels of member commitment. The congregations have greater percentage of member participation in weekly worship. Participants give more money per person and are more likely to volunteer. These churches spend less on staffing and give the highest percentage of their budget toward missions and charity.
However, these congregations are also more likely to have volunteer or bi-vocational clergy and their sanctuaries are the least full during worship compared to other size congregations. The churches also have the highest budget per capita, spend the highest percentage of their budget on buildings, and have the highest percentage of members over 65 and smallest percentage of children, youth, and young adults. Churches this size are also the least likely to say they were actively looking for new members.Despite their challenges, smaller churches have greater percentages of participation, giving, and volunteering than larger churches, according to the 2020 FACT study. Click To Tweet
Mid-sized congregations (101-250 weekly attendance) are the most likely to open their buildings for use by outside groups. They also report excellent financial position. These churches are more likely to have recent founding dates and be in the Western U.S., particularly in the growing Mountain West states.
On the other hand, these churches declined, on average, at a greater percentage than the overall average. While they open their buildings to outside organizations that did not translate, on average, to a strong support of community service activities or active involvement in the area compared to larger churches.
Congregations with more than 250 account for 10% of congregations but host close to 60% of all weekly churchgoers. Those involved in large churches have a greater willingness to change, a clearer sense of mission and purpose, and a greater sense of spiritual vitality. The numerical size and growth contribute other advantages and opportunities to these congregations.Congregations with more than 250 account for 10% of congregations but host close to 60% of all weekly churchgoers, according to the 2020 FACT study. Click To Tweet
As churches grow into this category, however, there is a decline among churchgoers in per capita giving, willingness to volunteer, and a lower overall level of participation within the congregation. This lends credence to the stereotype that some attendees of larger churches are looking for a place to spectate but not serve.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.