A new wide-ranging multifaith study predicts that 30% of U.S. religious congregations will become defunct because of dramatic decreases in attendance over the coming two decades.
A survey of 15,278 congregations in 80 Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Ba’hai denominations found that large congregations continued to grow, while smaller congregations shrank in 2020, according to the study produced by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Heading into the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the top 10% of churches by size already represented 70% of all weekly participants in religious services, the institute found.
“When you consider that many of those smaller congregations are rapidly aging, unless something dramatic happens that brings young people into them, it’s likely that 30% of them won’t survive the next 20 years,” said Hartford Institute Director Scott Thumma, who led the study.
The study, which is carried out every three to five years and is self-funded by the participating religious groups, offers only a snapshot of reality before the March 2020 pandemic lockdowns took hold.
Mr. Thumma said the pandemic likely accelerated ongoing trends identified by the study. “Churches themselves are getting smaller and the average church is now 65 people in attendance. That’s hardly enough money to actually fund a full-time clergyperson and have an impact on society and the community,” he said.
Hartford has received a Lilly Endowment grant of $5.3 million to study the impacts of the pandemic on congregations over the next five years.
Mr. Thumma pointed to a range of challenging factors ahead, including aging church memberships around the country — the average age of members is in the 60s. There is also the factor of decreased opportunities for volunteering, as well as limitations on in-person attendance, due to COVID-19.
With many congregations still limited to virtual participation in weekly services, Mr. Thumma predicts “the likelihood of people participating in congregations virtually is going to continue,” although he said such virtual participation will ultimately make it “harder for congregations to survive.”
Hartford’s data complements religious landscape surveys that have been conducted by the Pew Forum and show that U.S. religious observance and affiliation steadily has been declining with each new generation.
But while Pew asks individual adults to report their religious identity and participation, the Hartford study asks congregations themselves to distribute a questionnaire and report their average weekly attendance.
Mr. Thumma said the Hartford method offers a broader picture of institutional decline across all U.S. religious congregations. “The largest congregations contain [the] most attendees,” he said. “The majority of congregations are small, poor in technology and have relatively few people in them.”
Researchers conducted the survey through self-reported questionnaires that each religious group sent out to their congregations, collected, and returned to the institute for aggregation. While more than 1,000 new congregations were included in this year’s survey, researchers said the survey covered only monotheistic religions.
The Hartford Institute was founded 40 years ago at Hartford Seminary, a nondenominational Christian institution in Connecticut that recently adopted a new name, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace.