Mainline Churches Deal with ‘No Shows’

A new report this week has left many mainline churches  scratching their heads and wondering why church attendance has dropped.  The four major mainline churches, the Episcopal Church in the USA, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian (PCUSA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), have all experienced double digit drops in worship attendance.  What is even more puzzling is that the ELCA has seen an increase in giving in the last 10 years.

Churches increased attendance in the last decade but lost in attendance numbers in this decade. What gives?  The economy?

Lovett Weems, Executive Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership gives three possible explanations:

  • Worshipers attend less frequently. In addition to tracking weekly attendance numbers, some churches are tracking who actually worships during a month. Many pastors sense that the same individuals are worshiping throughout the year, but that they worship less often.
  • Aging constituencies. Mainline churches have a disproportionate number of mem­bers age 65 and older. This proportion will only grow more pronounced as the first of the baby boomers reach 65 in 2011. While it does not appear that death rates are changing dramatically in the mainline churches from year to year, many older members may not be attending as often—for health or other reasons.
  • Lack of interest in religion. Adding to the challenge of reaching younger people is the fact that the age group in which self-identified adherents of “no religion” are found most is 25-34. Additional indicators of decreasing interest in church life are found in the General Social Survey 2008: fewer people report going to church “several times a year” and more people report going “once a year.” Fewer report going “less than once a year” while many more report going “never.” In fact, the attendance category that has grown the most since 1990 is “never.”

When I posted this information on Twitter, some thought that this study does not track membership, but only attendance.  I see that there is a connection to the two.  Still, are people going to church less?  Are people giving up on church?  Or maybe, people are just giving up on mainline churches.

I think sometimes studies can exaggerate the reality.  Some religion observers like to think mainline churches are bleeding members.  It is more like a trickle.  Yes, it is well documented that people do not attend church like they did in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but there are pockets of growth.

What this study does not include is the fact that from 2008 to 2010, according to a Gallup poll released this year church attendance actually rose or was stable.

What is yet to be seen is how mainline churches will adapt.  In the next 10 years we will seen some major restructuring as denominations find their future in a new vision for organization.  The American Baptist Churches and the United Methodist Church have already started the process.

Will we see some new denominations, denomination merge, or old ones die?


  • http://www.margaretmarcuson.com Margaret Marcuson

    Thanks for this, Alan. I think the answer to your question is yes, yes and yes. I do think restructuring for new realities is necessary. At the same time, I remember Edwin Friedman saying that organizations that don’t know what to do, restructure. It’s not a substitute for vision.

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