Grow: Part Two

by Dan Smolnik


3/7/2019

In the first part of this two-part series, I reviewed some findings suggesting that the Church (capital C) in Connecticut is not shrinking, as many might think. We saw from the data that some larger denominations generally experienced reductions in adherents over the period from 1980 to 2010, and several denominations with historically smaller numbers in their pews grew, some of them at dramatic rates.

Now, let’s look at the number of congregations affiliated with each denomination over this same period. Changes in the number of congregations is a metric that typically moves quite slowly, and often lags the change to the number of adherents. Congregations generally change in quanta. That is, a congregation needs a critical number of participants to establish itself, and to remain in existence. So, when change occurs in the number of a denomination’s congregations in a geographical area,  it strongly suggests that meaningful change has occurred to the number of its followers. Figure 2, as with Figure 1 (see Part 1) eliminates dimensionality and uses percentage change so we can make a fair comparison.

Let’s look further into what these numbers may mean.
 

Figure 2 (click to see larger graph)
First, the median congregation size has fallen from 290 in 1980 to 195 in 2010. The median number of congregations for the Protestant (generally) denominations rose from 23 to 42 churches, while the average rose from 65 to 68.The median number of adherents within each denomination went from about 5,900 to about 8,000 while the average declined from about 29,000 to about 21,000.  This tells us three things:
  • Many people who self-identify with a religious tradition probably do not regularly attend organized collective church observations; and
  • The increase in persons claiming some religious affiliation is not uniformly reflected in the establishment of what we have come to recognize as traditional church infrastructures, such as dedicated houses of worship; and
  • People are aligning themselves with more church denominations (including non-denominational) outside the established brand names.
The total number of congregations of our cohort set of denominations, like the total adherence population, grew from 1,290 in 1980 to 1,371 in 2010. That’s an increase of about 6.3% . Compare this to the approximately 15% increase in religious adherents in Connecticut over the period (see Part 1) and we can venture that many religious people are going to traditional “church” less often or have associated themselves with nondenominational (i.e. not yet thoroughly measured) congregations. From this, we can see that religion is alive and well in Connecticut. I’ll take a leap of faith for the moment and project that it is healthy elsewhere as well, at least from the perspective I offer here.

Read together with my findings in the first part of this series, this information seems to me to suggest:
  1. More people are associating themselves with religion;
  2. Connecticut, at least, is experiencing a decrease in the share of total religious adherents among larger denominations;
  3. Connecticut is experiencing an increase in the number of congregations;
  4. Smaller denominations are gaining substantial adherent numbers; and
  5. Nondenominational churches are finally getting counted, and appear to attract large numbers.
We cannot support the notion that organized religion is moribund. We can enthusiastically state that religion is growing, but in ways our vision may not yet observe. I suggest we might expand our vision by understanding what “church” means to other people, by inquiring how the UCC can be such a church, and by contemplating what religion means today and everyday.

These are tall orders, to be sure. Let us go from being what The Rev.Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr.described as a thermometer, measuring what’s going on in our communities, to being the thermostat, and setting the expectations for social and spiritual justice.

Dan Smolnik is a tax attorney and member of Spring Glen Church in Hamden, CT, where he serves on the Board of Trustees and as a delegate.

 

Dan Smolnik



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