What are the major challenges that U.S. congregations face?

All of the results of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey are not positive. They also reveal some major challenges that congregations typically face. As with the strengths we found, not all congregations face each of the challenges. Many do.

  1. First challenge: Fewer men than women
  2. Second challenge: Limited involvement beyond worship
  3. Third challenge: Limited personal outreach
  4. Fourth challenge: Congregational size
  5. Fifth challenge: Worshipers are getting older

First challenge: Fewer men than women

There are fewer men in worship than women — 61% of worshipers are women. There are fewer men than women in the pews in every age category. There are fewer men than women across all life stages (singles, parents, those who are widowed, etc.). So, the fact that women outnumber men in church is not simply because women live longer. Women have lots to offer their congregations and play vital roles as worshipers and leaders. But, men are about 50% of the U.S. population — why aren’t they participating in worship to the extent that women do?

Gender of worshipers

Chart - Gender of worshipers

The challenge that congregations face is to look at this issue and consider — Why is the church a “women’s institution”? What can we do to make our services and activities more “user friendly” to men? How can we encourage men to play a greater role in the life of the congregation?Back to the top

Second challenge: Limited involvement beyond worship

This is actually a good news/bad news story in itself. The good news is that, overall, 76% regularly attend worship services. These are the worshipers who attend every week or almost every week.

But, behind this positive statistic is another fact: Less than half of all worshipers are involved in any kind of congregational small group beyond attending worship. In other words, they don’t attend church school, Sunday school, or other adult education class. They don’t take part in prayer groups or Bible study or discussion groups. They’re not part of other social or fellowship groups in the congregation.

Involvement in small groups
Are you involved in any of the congregation’s small groups?Chart - Involvment in small groups

Thus, it appear that there is a very thin layer of people who are involved in congregational life beyond attending services.

There have been lots of books and lots of advice from consultants about the importance of small groups for growing churches. The “small group movement” has been recommended to churches large and small. Involving people in small groups is an effective way to foster a sense of belonging and a feeling of personal attachment to others in the church and to the church as a whole. Organizations of all shapes and types successfully use this strategy.

Our findings suggest, however, that this “movement” has lots of potential for growth in the average congregation. Most worshipers are not involved in small groups in their congregations. The challenge for congregations is to find ways to get more people involved in small groups.

There is also a second challenge related to this issue. If most people are not participating in small groups, the findings also suggest that worship continues to be the primary spot where people are spiritually fed; where they form their sense of being part of a faith community; and where “church happens.” This, then is the second challenge: Is your congregation doing all it can to make your worship services meaningful and helpful?

Third challenge: Limited personal outreach

Less than half of worshipers (43%) said they invited someone — perhaps a friend, relative, or co-worker — who is not currently attending church to a worship service in the last year. In an entire year, most people did not invite even one person! This is certainly a challenge for congregations!

Inviting others
Have you invited anyone here to worship who doesn’t attend a congregation?

Chart - Inviting others

We know from other research that 75% of people attending a worship service for the first time are there because someone they know invited them to come. Advertising through the yellow pages, radio, television, direct mail, and the internet are relatively ineffective ways of bringing in new people when compared to a direct personal invitation. How can congregations capitalize on the “by-invitation-only” phenomenon?

Why don’t people invite someone to come with them? There are lots of possible reasons.

Perhaps it’s because . . .

  • we’re shy
  • we don’t know anyone who doesn’t go to church (if someone’s entire social circle attends the same congregation, it might be difficult to find someone to invite)
  • we are embarrassed about the quality of the services (“If I invited people, they might not like it here”)
  • we assume others wouldn’t be interested (“If I invited people, they’d just say no”)
  • some say they don’t know anyone their age who doesn’t go to church (excuse of older people)
  • we don’t know we “should” invite people — no one ever suggested doing so

Congregations are challenged to identify and understand the reasons why worshipers don’t invite others. Then, help worshipers find or learn specific ways of inviting others and give them reasons to invite others to worship. Equip your worshipers and give them good reasons to want to invite friends and relatives and co-workers to come to worship or other activities of the congregation.

Fourth challenge: Congregational size

This is probably the most profound reality facing congregations today. Most congregations are small. But most worshipers are in large congregations. Re-read that last sentence: Most congregations are small. But most worshipers are in large congregations. A wide gap exists between where the largest numbers of people worship and the size of the typical congregation.

To illustrate this seeming paradox, imagine a small town of 1,000 people — we’ll call it Lake Maybehere, Minnesota. This town has 10 congregations of various faith groups — Catholic, Protestant, and other religions. If all worshipers were equally spread among the congregations, each congregation would have 100 members (assuming everyone in town attends religious services!).

But this is not the case. For example, one of the congregations is a Catholic parish. Since Catholics are organized geographically into parishes, all the Catholics in town would go to the Catholic church. Because Catholics make up 25% of the population, 250 people would be attending Mass there.

That leaves only 750 people in town as potential worshipers for the other nine congregations. Are the 750 people spread out evenly among the remaining nine congregations?

Probably not. One congregation may have a charismatic leader, a wonderful program for children and youth, or a new building. They average 350 people in worship every week. Quite a crowd in this small town!

Now only 400 people are left to attend services at the other eight congregations. If each of these eight congregations got their “fair share,” it would mean they only attract 50 worshipers each!

While eight out of the ten congregations are small, 60% of the people in this imaginary town worship in a large church, synagogue or temple.

Congregational Size Congregational Worshipers
1 Congregation 250
8 Congregations 350

How do these factors play out in communities across America? Some congregations enjoy a large attendance at their services because of their faith tradition, their exemplary services or programs, or other features. Thus, the typical worshiper experiences a large congregation. This does not change the fact that the average congregation has fewer than 100 people in worship.

Another way to summarize this gap is with the following facts: 10% of U.S. congregations — the largest ones — draw 50% of all worshipers each week. Another 40% of congregations have 39% of worshipers attending services that week. The remaining 50% of all congregations — the smallest ones — have only 11% of the total number of worshipers in a given week.

Most congregations have fewer than 100 people in worship services. This key fact of congregational life has far reaching consequences. With so few people, raising funds and supporting full-time clergy or other professional staff can pose problems. Rising health-care costs have made it particularly difficult for small congregations to offer medical benefits to their staff. Most congregations and parishes also own their own building. Again, with less than 100 people to fund the expense of upkeep and operation of their facilities, resources are taxed. Day-to- day operating expenses may leave little money to fund extensive programs, community services, or other ministry projects. The size of the worshiping community is a critical factor. Thus, size can determine whether the congregation can afford to have paid staff (such as a minister, pastor, or priest), the number of programs that can be offered, the ability to maintain a building or worship site, and how widely the burden of leadership and finances can be shared.

Without the economies of scale that larger congregations benefit from, small congregations must be creative as they leverage limited existing resources.

Fifth Challenge: Worshipers are Getting Older

In 2001 when we first conducted the U.S. Congregational Life survey worshipers were, on average, 6 years older than the average person in the United States.  In 2008 and 2009 when the survey was repeated we found that worshipers were 10 years older than the average person in this country.  The median age of worshipers increased from 50 to 54 years of age between those two time periods.  The median age of the U.S. population was about 44 years in 2001 and remained the same 8 years later.

Today more than two-thirds of worshipers are age 45 or older; three in ten are 65 or older.  The increasing age of worshipers is reflected in other changes, too.  More worshipers today are retired (up from 25% in 2001 to 29% today) and fewer have children living at home (down from 47% in 2001 to 43% today).

Congregations are challenged by this changing demographic profile.  With fewer young people in the pews some congregations focus more on their older worshipers.  That focus may be off-putting to younger people who are looking for a new congregation.  How can your congregation effectively minister to the seniors in your congregation and at the same time be open and welcoming to young adults and families with young children?