FACT 2020: How Congregations Have Changed in the Last 20 Years

by Darren Slade, PhD – FaithX Director of Research

The organization, Faith Communities Today, along with 21 other Christian faith traditions, just released the results of the largest national survey of congregational trends in the United States. Spanning two decades of research (from 2000‒2020), the “Twenty Years of Congregational Change” reports findings from interviewing 15,278 congregations among 80 separate denominations and religious groups.

What’s significant about this particular survey is that it tracks multiple levels of change within American congregational life during both the pre- and early COVID era, much of which was predicted by the FaithX Project and its groundbreaking “Religion Singularity” research.

Continue reading to learn about some of the major highlights and results of the survey.

From the results of the survey, we can identify several trends that will pose a problem to institutionalized forms of Christianity, such as the following statistics:

PROBLEM: Imbalances leading to Unsustainability

  • Rural over Suburban & Urban. 25% of all congregations are located in rural regions despite only 6% of the US population living in these areas.
  • Small Towns over Large Cities. 22% of all congregations are located in small towns despite only 8% of the US population living in these areas.
  • Few New Churches in Growing Areas. Most Christian denominations have not continued to plant new churches in areas where the US population has increased exponentially since the 1950s.

IMPLICATION: Too many congregations in these rural and small town areas to be financially sustainable because they have so few attendees.

PROBLEM: Imbalance of Age

  • Aging Pastors. The median age of pastors is 57 years old, meaning they’re older and nearing retirement (with fewer students entering seminary to replace them).
  • Aging Attendees. 33% of attendees are age 65 or older while 23% of attendees are under the age of 18.
  • Aging Leaders Attracting Old Members. 61% of churches with a leader over the age of 65 also have a congregation where a third (or more) of its members are also over the age of 65.

IMPLICATION: The majority of attendees are not typically in a lifestyle situation that could help sustain their congregation financially or generationally; they are also less likely to desire change, possess spiritual vitality, or to grow numerically.

PROBLEM: Imbalance of Income & Expenditures

  • Fewer Congregations in the Black: 24% of congregations operate in a deficit (i.e., spend more than they bring in).
  • Fewer Full-Time Paid Leaders: 14% of all church leaders volunteer their time without pay, and 24% work at a part-time schedule.
  • More Spent On Internal Expenses. On average, 70% of a church’s income is spent on staff and building expenses.
    • 44% of the budget is allocated for staff salaries.
    • 26% of the budget is allocated for building operations.
  • Less Spent On External Expenses. On average, only 13% of the budget is allocated for missional activities, benevolence, and charity work.
    • Although part of those overhead costs is community-centered by allowing nonprofits, support groups, daycares, and government entities to use their building.
  • Larger Congregations Have Smaller Impact.
    • The larger a church becomes, the less its membership gives in donations per capita.
    • The larger a church becomes, the more it has to spend on staff salaries and building upkeep.
  • Increasing Size & Faster-Growth Results in Less Generous Giving. As the survey reports, “The larger the congregation gets, and the faster it grows, the greater the decline in per capita giving. Growth and large size also correlate to smaller percentages of the congregation willing to volunteer and a lower overall level of participant commitment generally” (p.16).

IMPLICATION: Less missional work & less community impact

PROBLEM: Imbalance of Leadership Demographics

  • Overwhelmingly Male. 90% of church leaders are men vs. 48.9% of the general population.
  • Overwhelmingly White. 85% of church leaders are white vs 57.8% of the general population.

IMPLICATION: Difficult to reach unrepresented but growing populations

PROBLEM: Small and Getting Smaller

  • Weekly Attendance Dropping.
    • Average weekly attendance has dropped over 50% in the last 20 years.
    • Half of all congregations declined in attendance by 7% from 2015 to 2020 (only 34% of congregations grew by 5% or more in that same time period: an average growth rate of 1% per year).
    • 70% of congregations have 100 or fewer people in weekly attendance.
  • Two-Thirds Empty. On average, half of all congregations in the US have 65 or fewer people per week, leaving 135 seats empty. Half of all congregations have no more than 38% of their seating capacity occupied during weekend services.
  • Empty Space Unused for Community Needs. On average, this extra physical space does not translate into medium-sized churches offering their building to the community for outside organizations to use.
  • The Large Will Inherit the Small. Because of the increasing size disparity between congregations, larger churches are likely to accelerate the demise of small- and medium-sized congregations.

IMPLICATION: Declining attendance rates will likely continue to worsen in the next 10 years.

PROBLEM: All Fall Down (Decline across Denominations between 2015 and 2020)

  • Mainline Protestants declined by 12.5%, with a medium weekly attendance of only 50 people.
  • Catholic and Orthodox Christians declined by 9.11%.
  • Evangelical Protestants declined by 5.4%, with a medium weekly attendance of only 65 people.
  • Medium-sized congregations (51‒500 members) declined by 12%, while smaller churches stayed relatively the same in size.
  • Small does not equal ineffectual but does mean diminished. As the report explains about smaller churches, “Small does not mean ineffectual but it does likely mean a part-time leader, older members, fewer resources, less vibrant worship, and diminished ministry efforts” (p.15).

IMPLICATION: Many more medium-sized churches will ultimately closing their doors permanently, since these congregations have larger buildings but not enough members to support the cost of overhead.

There were also a number of identifiable positive trends reported, as well, such as:

  • Small congregations can grow. 20‒50% of all-sized congregations show a slight trend toward growing numerically.
  • Large congregations can grow. More congregations with 250‒1500 grew than declined.
  • Extra-large congregations grow, though fewer of them do. 1% of congregations with 1500 or more members increased by at least 5% between 2015 and 2020.
  • Smaller congregations show more participation and commitment. Congregations (100 or fewer members) report having greater levels of member commitment and weekly worship participation.
  • Two-thirds of medium-size congregation have a healthy financial outlook. 68% of medium-sized congregations report having a good or excellent financial situation.
  • Larger congregations are more open to change and diversity. Congregations of 250 or more members report having a “desire for greater diversity of the membership, a greater willingness to change, a clearer sense of mission and purpose, and a greater sense of spiritual vitality contribute greatly to the flourishing of the religious community….A greater percentage of congregations over 250 are actively involved in community service and engaged in both ecumenical and interfaith worship, fellowship and community service activities” (p.16‒17).
  • More multiracial, multigenerational congregations. 25% of faith communities are multiracial, meaning that 20% or more of their members are not part of the dominant racial group of that religious community. These congregations also reflect greater age, economic, religious, and educational diversity. As the survey explains, “This diversity correlates to increased growth, spiritual vitality, a clearer sense of mission and purpose, and other attributes of a flourishing community” (p. 21).
  • A majority of congregations saw modest financial gains. While there is a slight trend downward in financial giving among congregants, 56% of churches saw a modest gain, although largely because they spent less than what they took in.

Additional Demographic Data

According to Faith Communities Today, there exists approximately 350,000‒375,000 congregations in the United States of all religious traditions. The following are some interesting demographic statistics about those congregations:

  • 10% of religious centers have 250 or more people in weekly attendance.
  • About 70% of all congregants attend a place of worship with 250 or more people.
  • 56% of attendees identify as female.
  • 41% of attendees have a college degree.
  • 24% of attendees joined their current congregation within the last 5 years.
  • On average, each congregant gives $2,000 each year in donations to their church.
  • 71.3% of congregations in the US are “Evangelical Protestant” (which also includes black Protestant churches).
  • 20.2% of congregations are Mainline Protestant.
  • 5.2% of congregations are Catholic or Orthodox Christian.
  • 1.4% of congregations are from non-Christian faith traditions.*
  • Half of all congregations are located in the South despite this region constituting only 38% of the US population, meanwhile
    • 24% of all congregations are located in the Midwest.
    • 14% of all congregations are located in the Western part of the US.
    • 12% of all congregations are located in the Northeast.
  • 68% of attendees live within 15 minutes of their congregation.**
  • 44% of congregants claim to volunteer their time in church ministry.
  • On average, each congregant gives $2,000 each year in donation to their congregation.
  • The median income per congregation is $120,000 each year.

Concluding Thoughts

Until the recent pandemic, the percentage of churches agreeing or strongly agreeing with having an openness to change had been in steady decline. But of course, because of COVID-19, the pandemic has since forced many churches to reconsider their approach to ministry. While there have been some positive trends in church life over the last twenty years, most noticeably a desire for greater diversity, the overall situation is not quite as positive. The biggest problem facing institutional Christianity is the rapidly shrinking size of congregations and the number of empty seats at weekend services. Because of this trend, and as predicted in Ken Howard’s “The Religion Singularity,” these church buildings will likely not be able to maintain operation with so few financial supporters. At the same time, as larger churches continue to grow, a complacent form of cultural Christianity will solidify itself as congregants donate fewer hours and fewer dollars to the church’s global mission.

The consequence of these trends may be irrevocably damaging to Christian ministry in the United States.

The report is correct when it concludes, “However, the research is clear that this moment demands real change if a large percentage of faith communities are to survive the next 20 years with spiritual vibrancy and ministry effectiveness” (p. 29).


*This figure reveals a major discrepancy between the current survey and the 2018/2019 National Congregations Study, which revealed that 6% of congregations are of non-Christian faith traditions.

**This figure is consistent with FaithX findings.