Future Faith: Challenge One: Revitalizing Withering Congregations

Read the introduction to this series here.

Scott Thumma (Director of the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, affiliated with Hartford Seminary in Connecticut) believes that 30-40 percent of congregations in the United States will close in the next thirty years.

David Roozen, Scott Thumma’s colleague at the Hartford Institute, has coordinated a comprehensive study of US congregations, with reports issued every five years. This Faith Communities Today study for 2015 discovered that for the first time in recent history, over half of US congregations -57.9 percent had under one hundred members.

Roozen’s survey shows that congregations with more than one hundred members show a greater likelihood of reporting “high spiritual vitality.” Congregations with 350 members or more have better chances to survive and thrive.

Furthermore, Roozen’s study points out, that “In a rapidly changing world, thriving congregations are nearly ten times more likely to have changed themselves as are struggling congregations.”

So, the first challenge facing the future of Christianity, at least in the United States (read Western World), is this: Most congregations must change or face a slow but certain demographic death.

In the more than 1600 megachurches of the United States, 80 percent have a food pantry or soup kitchen, 59 percent are involved in job training, and more than half have programs for literacy and tutoring. Most megachurches are laboratories of change; innovation is in their DNA. This shows that if a congregation wants do adapt to a changing demographic it would be to provide more than just the Bible. The Church needs to be a place of safety where food can be enjoyed in order to learn, to create a better future for all.

In the last century, Christianity’s growth was twice the rate of Asia’s population growth. In contrast to American (read Western) Christianity, many younger people in China are moving away from being “Nones” -those without any religious affiliation, reflecting the nation’s Communist legacy- to becoming those who embrace religion. Today, one out of four Christians in the world is an African.

About two-thirds of immigrants coming to the United States are Christians, bringing with them the vitality, texture, and expressions of faith formed in non-Western cultures. While often unrecognized and unappreciated, these Christian pilgrims are beginning to alter America’s religious landscape in fresh and unexpected ways.

The world is interconnected as never before. The irony is that the global narrative tells of a world becoming more religious, with Christianity experiencing dynamic growth and change that is bringing fresh spiritual vitality and relevant social impact. The question is whether US churches will be locked into a parochial story of their gradual demise or liberated by a global story that is bringing new life into its midst from unexpected places.

discussion guide

  • What one word or phrase would you use to describe your faith community or congregation? Do you see the description as positive or negative (or neither)? Why?
  • The author cites statistics that point to a decline in people attending both mainline and some evangelical church denominations? Has your faith community experienced such decline? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • In contrast, many faith communities across the world are growing. What does the author suggest the North American church can learn from these vibrant and growing communities of faith?
  • What example of the growing global church provided in the chapter was particularly striking to you? Why?
  • What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?


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