by AT News Team

According to a report released Wednesday (September 21) to Adventist Today and other media by David A. Roozen for Faith Communities Today 2010 (FACT2010), a study of more than 28,000 randomly sampled North American congregations of many faiths has found the overall health of American churches has seriously declined in the past 10 years.

Not only is attendance down, financial difficulties are far worse than in the past, and spiritual vitality as measured by the poll appears to have seriously eroded. The poll also measured ‘conflict’ in the congregations and discovered that nearly two in three congregations have experienced noticeable conflict in the past 10 years, half of those ‘serious conflicts.’ The level of conflict was associated by the pollsters with the decline in spiritual vitality.

There were bright spots, however, with clear evidence that ‘mission-oriented’ congregations tend to hold their own better than others, and that growth is indeed occurring in churches that take the time and effort to try to make their services culturally relevant to contemporary adults and young people. He also noted the Seventh-day Adventist Church, in particular, is excelling in the conversion and retention of members of ethnic groups.

The contemporary-style churches which emerged from California and have spread across America have now permeated all denominations, and once staid-and-stolid old-fashioned services in old-line churches are now being replaced by the newer format. The format is still better known on the West Coast than in the rest of the country, but during the past 10 years has caught on in the East, the last section of the country to accept the newer styles of worship.

The report also found spiritual vitality appeared to crest at the extremes (among very conservatives and very liberals), while those in the mainstream, or moderate middle in terms of their beliefs, tended to be less committed to their churches.

In a question-and-answer session following the official release of the report, an Adventist Today reporter asked Roozen if in his opinion a ‘conservative’ church is more likely to grow than a moderate or liberal church. Roozen replied that those on either edge of the left-right continuum seem to benefit numerically, while those in the moderate middle seem less able to move forward. “In this study, a church at either extreme of the spectrum seemed more prone to growth than those in the middle,” he said.

He noted that Adventism continues to be one of the most successful denominations in the United States in terms of its evangelization of ethnic minorities, and he sees growth continuing among immigrants, especially in Adventism.

Roozen also noted congregations with less than one-third of their membership under the age of 65 appear to be significantly stronger overall, compared with congregations where more than one-third is retirement age.

Earlier this month FACT2010 released a report (available on atoday.org) that studied the level of interfaith activity among American denominations.
This report noted a strong inverse correlation between a denomination's perception of self as ‘conservative’ and its willingness to coordinate with other faiths in ministry. The survey found that 65 percent of Adventists interviewed saw their church as conservative, compared with members of the Unitarian Universalist Association who saw themselves as containing 0 percent conservative (the lowest of all denominations) and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who viewed their church as 90 percent conservative (the most conservative).

Roozen said that FACT2010 is preparing to release a third report this year, identifying the prime factors for growth among American congregations. “We still have been unable to quantify what makes a successful pastor,” he admitted. “We just don’t have the tools to do that, but we’re trying.”

A complete abstract of the report on the health of American churches, released yesterday (September 21), “A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010,” is available here.