• In 2006-07, 30% of regular attenders in the average congregation were older than age 60, compared with 25% in 1998.
• The percent of regular adult participants younger than age 35 in the average congregation dropped from 25% to 20%.
Older people long have been over-represented in American congregations because religious participation increases with age. Women also long have been disproportionately active in congregations. But unlike women, the over-representation of older people seems to be increasing. This probably stems from people living longer and young adults participating less than they once did. Young adults participate less in part because they marry later and are more likely to be childless. Married people with children are among the most likely to be involved with congregations.
This is worrisome indeed. You see, young adults are marrying later and therefore are less likely to be in church. What makes us so sure they’ll come back when they have kids?
It’s a colossal mistake to ignore young singles in our congregations. We often speak in terms of “families” when speaking to our congregation, as though those who are single don’t count because they aren’t part of a family — which is the exact opposite of what church is about. We don’t so much attract families as we become family. Therefore, singles are just as much family as those of us with spouses.
We need to make a serious effort to build up ministries for young single adults, as I wrote a while back. It’s a matter of our long-term survival, because we have raised a generation of kids that will be young single adults long after college. We can’t afford to write this generation off.
Social service is static
Virtually all congregations do something that we might consider social or human service or ministry for people outside the congregation:
• Eighty-two percent of congregations participate or sponsor such programs, including 90% of regular attenders.
However, congregational involvement in this kind of work has not increased since 1998.
This is also worrisome. 82% sounds like a great number, but the reality is that most of these programs are token efforts — $500 for vagrants who wander in off the street asking for lunch money.
Most congregations conduct some kind of social services, however minor, but in 2006-07:
• Only 15% of congregations had a staff person working at least quarter-time on these programs.
• Only 8% received government funds.
• Six percent of congregational social service programs involved collaborations with government agencies.
• One in 5 programs involved collaborations with secular nonprofit organizations.
I’m not sure these are the best measures of how much good is being done or how involved the membership is in social service, but the figures are consistent with my theory — most social service is a very minor part of the total budget or volunteer commitment.
On other hand, my observation is that this is changing and getting much, much better. It’s just not showing up in the figures because if you have a church that once had a $500 budget increasing that to $50,000 and hundreds of volunteers, it’ll still look the same to the survey. It checks the same box.
I can’t prove it, but I see the Spirit moving powerfully to push God’s people into more meaningful works of service for the poor and needy. Things are changing, but we’re just at the beginning of the change. And there are some genuinely positive figures —
The number of congregations that would like to apply for government money to support social service programs increased from 39% in 1998 to 47% in 2006-07. The number of all congregations who hosted a speaker from a social service organization increased from 22 to 31%. And the number who recently conducted a community needs assessment jumped from 37 to 48%.
On the other hand,
Not including the value of staff, volunteer time, or in-kind contributions, the active congregation attended by the average person spent only $5,000 directly on these programs in 2006-07.
That’s on a median budget of $280,000 — less than 2% — and not growing compared to inflation. So maybe my optimism is premature.
Churches are far more inclusive of gays and others than most would expect
· Seventy-two percent of congregations, containing 85% of congregation attendees, allow moderate drinkers to be full-fledged members.
· Fifty-three percent of congregations, containing 71% of congregation participants, allow moderate drinkers to hold volunteer leadership positions.
· Fifty-four percent of congregations, with 65% of participants, allow cohabiting heterosexual couples to be full-fledged members.
· Twenty-eight percent, with 31% of attendees, allow cohabiting heterosexual couples to hold volunteer leadership positions.
• Sexual orientation:
· Thirty-eight percent of congregations, with 49% of attendees, allow gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships to be full-fledged members.
· Nineteen percent, with 23% of participants, allow gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships to hold volunteer leadership positions.
• Abortion (Pro-Choice):
· Sixty percent of congregations, with 66% of attendees, allow pro-choice individuals to be full-fledged members.
· Forty-one percent, with 41% of attendees, allow pro-choice individuals to hold volunteer leadership positions.
• Abortion (Pro-Life):
· Eighty-six percent of congregations, with 91% of participants, allow pro-life individuals to be full-fledged members.
· Eighty-two percent, containing 86% of attendees, allow pro-life individuals to hold volunteer leadership positions.
Congregations are, of course, more inclusive in membership than in leadership, but even there the number of inclusive congregations is surprisingly high. Tolerance of homosexuality – perhaps the most divisive issue today in American religion – is also high, with one in five congregations allowing individuals in an openly homosexual couple to serve in volunteer leadership.
I find these statistics astonishing. I’m not particularly surprised regarding alcohol, but the rest of the figures are just beyond belief. I mean, 14% of the congregations would not allow a pro-life individual to be a full-fledged member! Churches representing 65% of the membership would not deny full membership to cohabiting unmarried couples. And churches representing 49% of attendees have no objection to homosexual couples in committed relationships being members. It seems that the American church has decided that Jesus has nothing to say about sexuality.
Obviously, these figures are not reflective of Churches of Christ.
The report does note, however —
Moreover, even the welcoming of cohabiting or gay and lesbian participants may indicate a desire to change people rather than embrace them. Only 6% of congregations, after all, have adopted written statements officially welcoming gays and lesbians.
And I have to grant that “full-fledged member” is hardly a clear theological category. They didn’t ask whether these full-fledged members would be subject to instruction and perhaps discipline regarding their lifestyles — so it’s possible that the numbers overstate the issue.
Women are allowed leadership positions in most churches
Women still do not enjoy full inclusion everywhere in American religion, but have become increasingly involved in leadership:
• Fifteen percent of congregations, containing 13% of attendees, do not allow women to serve in their governing body.
• Fifty-one percent, with 59% of participants, do not allow women to be full-fledged senior clergy.
• Thirty-three percent, containing 43% of attendees, do not allow women to preach at a main worship service.
• Thirteen percent, containing 11% of attendees, do not allow women to teach a class containing adult men.
• Twenty-six percent, with 20% of participants, exclude women from some volunteer leadership positions.
Churches representing 87% of members allow women to serve on their governing bodies. However, a majority do not allow women to be senior clergy. And while churches with 43% of the membership won’t allow a woman to preach, churches representing 89% of the members would allow a woman to teach a class that includes men.
Churches have a surprising frequency of internal conflict
About one-quarter of American congregations had a conflict within the last two years serious enough to call a special meeting – 29% in 1998 and 24% in 2006-07.
• About one-quarter had a conflict in the last two years over which some people left the congregation – 27% in 1998 and 26% in 2006-07.
• In 2006-07, 9% had a conflict in the last two years that led a clergyperson or other religious leader to leave the congregation.
• Of the congregations that participated in both waves of the NCS:
· Seven percent reported conflict at both times.
· Thirty-seven percent reported conflict in one or the other year.
Fewer than one in 10 congregations experience what we might call persistent conflict. One in 4 congregations experience some sort of conflict over a two-year period. Two in five experience some sort of conflict over a four-year period.
With the level doctrinal transition going on over sexuality, the role of women, and such, perhaps this figures isn’t that surprising, until you see what the survey reports are the causes of the conflicts —
Of congregations that reported any conflict in 2006-07:
• Thirty-five percent said their conflicts were about clergy.
• Twelve percent said they were about “leadership,” which may or may not refer to clergy leadership.
• Eight percent said they were about money.
• Two percent said they were about education or schools.
• Four percent said they were about homosexuality.
• Forty-eight percent of reported conflicts were placed in a catch-all “other” category, which means that many reflect a hodge-podge of subjects, from “separation from another Methodist church in town” to “personality clashing.”
The largest one cause was over “clergy”! That would seem to mean whether to hire or fire a given minister, which is sometimes a doctrinal issue, sometimes a generational thing, and sometimes about whether the church trusts the decision of those firing a minister.
I thing these figures are likely not that far removed from Churches of Christ. We have our fair share of conflict, too. As I reflect on the recent conflicts in local Churches, I figure we’re about like everyone else. It’s still very often about whether to fire the preacher or which preacher to hire.
Old congregations are dying
The average founding date of the churches surveyed in 1998 was 1924. In 2006/7, it was 1940 — a 16-year shift. This surely reflects both the founding of new churches and the closing of many old churches. Certainly in the Churches of Christ we’ve seen thousands of congregations close their doors in the last 8 years.
Nondenominational Christianity is on the rise.
The churches with no denominational ties rose from 10.4 to 13.9% of the total number of attenders — a 30% increase. Of course, nondenominational churches remain very much in the minority. On the other hand, there are also a great many churches with a denominational affiliation that have branded themselves with a nondenominational name.
The likelihood of a voter registration drive has gone up for 12.4 to 27.3% of attenders — a truly dramatic increase. However, this is hardly a white Republican church phenomenon — it runs across denominational and racial spectrums. It does show, however, a greatly increased political awareness, no doubt driven by a series of very close presidential races and much more diligent efforts by the political parties to push for voter registration. Like it or not, it shows how effective the two political parties are at using the churches to their own ends.