Where Will Americans Go to Church in 2025?
By: Lyle E. Schaller
Between 1998 and 2008, the combined worship attendance in all of the Protestant congregations in the United States increased by an estimated 6 to 7 percent on the typical weekend. If that rate of increase drops to only 5 percent for the 2010-2020 decade, we can predict with absolute certainty that rate of growth in churchgoers will not be distributed evenly among all religious bodies!
For comparison purposes, the United States Bureau of the Census has projected a 9 percent increase in the resident population between 2010 and 2020. These demographers also expect the number of women ages 55 and over in the total population will increase more rapidly than for men age 55 and over. Since mature women are more likely than mature men to go to church regularly, that estimate of a 5 percent increase in Protestant church attendance may be low.
Another reason it probably is low is that Mass attendance in Roman Catholic parishes in America has dropped in recent years, and it is doubtful if that trend will be completely reversed before 2020. It also should be noted that at least a few Protestant denominations have been implementing a collection of operational policies, priorities, plans, programs, and practices that are consistent with and supportive of a decrease in both membership and worship attendance.
Who Won't Grow?
The more highly visible category consists of those congregations that have gathered in the same room for the corporate worship of God since before 1975, own fewer than 35 spaces of off-street parking, average fewer than 50 at weekend worship, and are comfortable identifying themselves as "one big family."
A second group of congregations can place the blame on Henry Ford. When he invented the $5 a day wage for every adult employee in 1914, one of his motivations was that every worker should be able to own an automobile. Achievement of that goal marked the beginning of the end for the goal that every Christian congregation should serve a geographically defined constituency. Those congregations that adopt a ministry plan designed to "serve the residents of our neighborhood" face an uphill struggle! As the distance of that journey from home to work continues to increase, so does the length of the journey from home to church.
Since most adults usually prefer to perpetuate the status quo rather than to support change, that usually places a low ceiling on potential size. Nearly all of the congregations in American Protestantism that average more than 200 at weekend worship are NOT participatory democracies. They usually have one of five responses to the question. "Who really runs this church?" The most common response is a representative democracy. The elected Board of Elders is a common example. A distant second is the dead. Before they died, they adopted a constitution for that congregation that requires a huge majority for any proposed amendment. A third system of governance enables the congregation to grant the pastor nearly unlimited authority to lead. Close to that is a fourth system in which the congregation both expects and grants authority to the paid staff to lead. A fifth system places a high value on seniority. One consequence is the founding pastor may become the most influential leader for two or three or four decades. The tradeoff often means the successor may become the unintentional interim pastor.
A fourth category of congregations that are unlikely to be among the big Protestant churches in America in 2020 are those in which a large degree of external control is placed in the denominational system.
A fifth category of Protestant congregations unlikely to experience numerical growth during the next decade are those in which the change in the local context has lowered the ceiling. One example is the white congregation that gathers for the corporate worship of God in a building once surrounded by residents who traced their ancestry back to western Europe. Today most of the residents of that same neighborhood may trace their ancestry to Asia or Latin American or Africa.
Three Other Variables
That helps to explain why approximately one-third of all Protestant congregations in America report an average worship attendance of fewer than 50 and together they account for about one-eighth of the combined total Protestant church attendance on the typical weekend. These small churches fulfill the role of The Third Place in the lives of millions of Americans today. (The First Place is their home. The Second Place is where they work. The Third Place is where they spend time with other members of their personal social network. See Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place, Paragon House, 1989.)
The second variable can be introduced in generational terms. While this has limited relevance, it begins with the assumption that the capability to meet and make new friends peaks among people in the 5-to-25 age bracket. As the birthdays roll by, that capability to meet and make new friends tends to be eroded by time.
A common consequence is in the congregation that doubles its average worship every decade (for example, from 100 to 200 to 400 to 800 in 30 years) experiences at least a half dozen changes: (1) the need for paid ministerial staff members shifts from generalists to specialists, (2) the self-definition of a "congregation of families and individuals" is replaced by a congregation of boards, circles, classes, committees, fellowships, growth groups, ministry teams, personal faith networks, and task forces," (3) the most effective years of a new pastorate begin after about year five or six or seven, (4) the number of members may increase more rapidly than the increase in membership due to an inadequate capability to assimilate newcomers, (5) long-tenured members tend to feel "my church has been taken over by strangers," and (6) the real estate that was designed to house a congregation averaging fewer than 300 at weekend worship either (a) places a low ceiling on the future or (b) has to be expanded or abandoned and replaced by relocating the meeting place.
The third variable raises a more sensitive issue. Eventually the day arrives when a successor must be found for the pastor who led that congregation during the last decade or two of that rapid growth in size.
What often is a productive choice is the person who joined the staff several years earlier and now (a) is the senior associate minister, (b) has earned the trust and confidence of the lay leadership, and (c) possesses the other qualifications required to be an effective successor.
Another "winner" often is the senior associate minister of a larger congregation who accepts the challenge with the warning, "While I've never served a congregation as small as this before, I am convinced this is the church God is calling me to serve. Therefore, I believe that if we all work together, we can double the size in a dozen years, but that will require some changes. One of these is during my first year I will accept a leadership role in designing a five-year ministry plan. The implementation of that customized and comprehensive ministry plan may require changes in the configuration of the paid program staff."
There is a huge difference between staffing a congregation to reach and serve more people or staffing it for numerical decline!
The big congregations are becoming both larger and more numerous. Most of them display at least five of these six characteristics. (1) They are able to reach, attract, serve, assimilate, nurture, disciple, and challenge the generations of Americans born after 1980. (2) When recent new constituents are asked, "Why did you choose this congregation as your church home?" one large group reply with words such as relevance, quality, and choices, while a smaller group reply, "Marriage," and a third group reply, "I was looking for a church where there are people like me." (3) While they rarely state it in these terms, a substantial proportion of people reply, "There are three places in my life—home, work, and my personal social network—and this is that great third place." (4) In terms of governance, the congregation is completely autonomous. (5) They have been coming for the corporate worship of God at this address for fewer than four decades. (6) The paid staff consists largely of highly competent specialists rather than generalists.
Finally, it must be noted that 2025 will arrive about six decades after that peak era of the 1960s for several of the mainline Protestant denominations. To be more precise, 2025 will be about 150 million funerals and 240 million births in America after 1965.
Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and consultant.
Copyright 2010 by Lyle E. Schaller