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Taking the Measure of American Congregations

The most recent report from the National Congregations Study  was released in December, 2015, and it allows interested students of congregational life to learn a great deal about what is typical and what is not.  Begun in 1998, this is the third wave of the survey, so it not only documents where we are today, but also allows us to see how things have changed over the fourteen years from the first survey to this one.

In cooperation with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and directed by Professor Mark Chaves from Duke University, this information comes from a representative sample of American congregations, from across the religious spectrum.  If you want to know where your congregation fits – in size or staffing or worship style or inclusivity or engagement in your community – you can find reliable comparisons here.

The survey has consistently documented that most congregations are small, but most people are in big ones.  Here’s how the report makes the point:

To get a feel for just how concentrated people are in the largest congregations, imagine that we have lined up all congregations in the United States, from the smallest to the largest. Imagine that you are walking along this line, starting on the end with the smallest congregations. When you get to a congregation with 400 people, you would have walked past about half of all churchgoers, but more than 90% (93%, to be exact) of all congregations! Or imagine walking along this line of congregations from the other direction, starting with the very largest. When you get to that same 400-person congregation, you would have walked past only about 7% of all congregations, but half of all churchgoers (p. 5).

The new data confirm that people are even more concentrated in the big congregations now than in 1998.  The median number of attendees is now 70. So if that’s your congregation, you are bigger than half the others and smaller than the other half – but most of the people in your community are in the bigger congregations down the street.

And as the report also makes clear, size matters, and not always as you might expect.

·       Yes, bigger congregations have bigger budgets, but their per capita giving is lower.

·       Yes, they have more staff, but the ratio of participants to staff is considerably higher.

As you think about how your congregation compares to these national trends, think about how its size affects its culture.  How does it affect the way your worship?  How does it affect the way you get things done?  How does it affect what people expect to do themselves and what they expect the clergy to do?  And how does it affect how well people know each other and how easy it is for a new person to find a place?

There are dozens of other interesting findings in the NCS report!  As you explore it, think about how your congregations is – and isn’t – following larger national trends.  Are you different because you want to be?  Are you more “normal” than you thought?  Use this as a conversation starter about your own future.

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org