The National Congregations Study has surveyed churches in 1998, 2006-2007, and 2012…3815 congregations in all.  Obviously, surveys don’t tell us everything we would like to know about the church, but church leaders would do well to pay attention to the trends that the NCS reveals.

Some of what the NCS considers most significant observations are:

  • Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations
  • The average congregation is getting smaller, but the average churchgoer attends a large congregation.
  • Worship services have become more informal and expressive
  • 10% of churchgoers worship in multi-site congregations

Size and Concentration

Congregations are getting older.  Children in Evangelical churches made up 33% of the church in 1998, but declined to 28% by 2012.  This trend reflects underlying demographic changes in American society:  smaller families as a result of delaying marriage until later in life, and more people who do not have children.  That is a trend likely to continue to influence American congregations, and is one to watch in the long term.

Most congregations in the United States are small, but most people are in large congregations. In 2012, the average congregation had only 70 regular participants, counting both adults and children, and an annual budget of $85,000. At the same time, the average attendee worshipped in a congregation with about 400 regular participants and a budget of $450,000.  The largest seven percent of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers.  This trend towards more and more people moving to larger congregations isn’t new, it began back in the 70’s, but it does appear to be intensifying.

Worship

Looking at changes from 1998 to 2012:
• Fewer congregations incorporate choir singing into worship, falling from 54% to 45%.
• The number of congregations that use a printed bulletin dropped from 72% to 62%.
• Far more use visual projection equipment in worship, increasing dramatically from
only 12% to 35%.
• The number of congregations in which people raise their hands in praise jumped from 45% to 59%.
• More congregations have applause breaking out, rising from 55% to 65%.
• The number of congregations that use drums increased from 20% to 34%.
• Fewer congregations use organs, falling from 53% to 42%.

Length of Time Spent in Worship. The median worship service is 75 minutes long, but
there is a lot of variation around this average. About one in four worship services are two hours or longer, while slightly more than one third (35%) keep regular worship times to an hour or less. Black Protestant and white evangelical services average about 90 minutes, compared to the 60-minute average service in Catholic and white mainline churches.  Much of this 30-minute difference is taken up by longer sermons, which average 35 minutes in white evangelical and black Protestant churches and only 15 minutes in Catholic and white mainline Protestant churches. Congregation size does not seem to be related to service length, and there is no noticeable trend over time.

Civic Engagement

Congregations mainly focus on collective worship, religious education, and pastoral care of their members. At the same time, however, almost all also serve the needy in some fashion, and about one third are politically active, engaging in efforts to promote or prevent social and cultural change.

Serving the needy in some capacity is by far the most common way in which congregations are civically engaged beyond their walls. In 2012, the vast majority of congregations (87%) reported some involvement in social or human services, community development, or other projects and activities intended to help people outside the congregation, including sending small groups of their members to assist people in need either within the U.S. or internationally. Since larger congregations do more social service work, this means that virtually all Americans who attend religious services (94%) attend a congregation that is somehow active in this way.

Congregations engage in a great variety of social service activities, but some types of
activities are much more common than others. The single most common kind of helping activity involves food assistance. More than half (52%) of all congregations—almost two-thirds (63%) of congregations active in social service—mention feeding the hungry among their four most important social service programs. Addressing health needs (21%), building or repairing homes (18%), and providing clothing or blankets to people (17%) also were among the more commonly mentioned activities, though they were much less common than food assistance.

Conclusion

There is a lot more in the study than I have chosen to highlight.  If you are interested (and if you are a church leader I hope you are interested) please go to http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf for the full report.