Only megachurches and “minichurches” in the United States?

Recent data suggests there may be two very different sizes of churches in the United States:

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According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100…

“Shrinking attendance figures coupled with an increase in the number and percent of small congregations obviously indicates that a good many congregations are not growing,” the study’s authors found. “Indeed, the median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%,” meaning half of all congregations declined in attendance by at least 7%.

While most congregations are small, however, most worshippers attend a larger congregation. Another prominent report, the National Congregations Study, found that while the average congregation is small — about 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.

The report reflects the reality that religious Americans are being sorted into two kinds of churches — megachurches, and minichurches like Cornerstone.

Are they being sorted or has this been going on for a while? On the larger end are megachurches, congregations with more 2,000 members. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades. Megachurches get a lot of attention due to their size, their programs, and leaders. Since each one attracts many attendees, they could equal dozens of smaller churches in terms of people there for services. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades.

If the primary marker of a religious congregation is size and growth, then megachurches are more successful. The article goes on to talk about different reasons why people and leaders might choose smaller congregations. The megachurch experience is not for everyone. Whether there is much left for small congregations if much of the resources and attention is going to larger congregations is another story.

And the answer regarding this competition between megachurches and minichurches might be in between. The big megachurches are known, small congregations are everywhere, and a sizable set of Americans worship in congregations of several hundred. These medium sized congregations can offer some of the amenities of the biggest churches while staying at an approachable size.

Getting more suburban churches to develop affordable housing

As churches in cities develop affordable housing, how about more suburban churches doing the same? First, what some Atlanta churches are doing:

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The project is one of several in Atlanta where faith leaders are investing in affordable housing for the sake of their communities. Across the country, churches with property in prime locations are turning over one block, one building, one lot at a time through movements like “Yes in God’s Backyard” in California. Atlanta-area pastor Rev. David Lewicki discusses the calling of affordable housing as a ministry.

“We are increasingly convinced that affordable housing is the foundation of beloved community,” the Presbyterian minister wrote at Faith & Leadership. “Housing is a profound and even holy good.”…

Lewicki’s church got involved in lobbying for more inclusionary zoning policies to allow for lower-priced options in their area and began to create a land trust so they could get involved in addressing the legacy of racial and economic segregation in the city…

Affordable housing and community development can seem like just business ventures—which they are—but pastors know how much these issues directly affect their congregants and stem from biblical calls for community.

Here are a few compelling reasons why suburban churches should follow this course:

  1. Affordable housing is needed throughout metropolitan regions. For example, in the Chicago region, experts suggests there is a need for tens of thousands of units. And the need is not limited to Chicago or just specific communities; it is needed in many locations.
  2. Welcoming people goes beyond Sunday morning and indicating to people that they are wanted in the community all week round. It is one thing to be part of a church community; it is another to be fully welcomed into all of the community.
  3. Housing is critical in a suburban environment as it helps in access to jobs, schools, parks, and other amenities that lead to a higher quality of life. Plus, homeownership is highly valued in suburbs so if there are opportunities for congregations to provide affordable single-family homes, this helps attendees match suburban aspirations with reality.
  4. Suburban churches have funds and local power to make this happen. It takes money to buy, develop, and maintain properties. It takes expertise and influence to work with municipalities and concerned neighbors. Congregations are often viewed as assets in communities and they often have built up goodwill over the years.

While this may not be an easy task in many suburban locations as neighbors and communities resist providing housing for residents with fewer resources, religious congregations could help lead the way.

Facebook as the home for religious congregations?

Facebook is interested in partnering more with religious congregations and becoming the online home for their activity:

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Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups…

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it…

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams…

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

Doing church and religion online is well established and not going away. Yet, as the article notes, this raises a whole host of issues. Here are a few of my thoughts in response:

  1. I first noticed the importance of Facebook for multiple congregations when working with data based on congregational websites. Many congregations have websites, of varying degrees of sophistication and presentation, but not all. Some of those same congregations with websites also have Facebook pages and some without websites have Facebook pages. Do congregations really need both? Do they serve different audiences? The advantage of being on a social media platform is that people are already there (as opposed to searching for or typing in a website) and it offers the opportunity for interaction (usually not possible on a website).
  2. This makes sense from Facebook’s end as religious congregations tend to be durable social groups. If there are particular services Facebook can offer (such as helping congregations gather funds), they can gain a sizable market share of religious interaction and gathering.
  3. The religious people interviewed for the story suggested social media was really good for evangelism or reaching out to people. Yet, it is then easy to slip into a particular approach to people – see the conflation of “consumer” and “parishioner” above – and possibly difficult to transition from online interaction to embodied interaction. Worshiping online fits with many American religious features such as individualism and voluntary association but long-standing concerns about helping people move from an individualistic or response-to-evangelism faith to something deeper will continue in this model.
  4. I have lots of possible thoughts on how online religious gatherings function compared to meeting in a physical building shaped by the congregation. While my co-author and I did not address this directly in our book Building Faith, we argue buildings are very important for worship and fellowship.

Designing religious buildings, for function and flourishing

Building off yesterday’s post about the small percent of American buildings that are designed, I was reminded of the book Robert Brenneman and I released in 2020 about religious buildings. Here are several connections between our work and arguments about designing the American built environment:

  1. Different religious traditions and groups place a different level of emphasis on the importance of design and details for religious buildings. A number of Protestant congregations downplay the need for a designed building or the importance of a building. Take the megachurch with its theater/performance space sanctuary or the gym that could be home to services, meals, and basketball games. Yet, we found that congregations can put a lot of effort and energy into the process of constructing and maintaining their building. A building matters for religious groups and it has the potential to shape both the experience of the transcendent and the community for those who use and visit the building.
  2. In Chapter 5, Robert talked with three architects who work with different religious groups to realize their dreams for buildings. These architects have ideas about what religious buildings could or should look like and they interact with congregations to help produce what the congregation and the architect agree on.
  3. Congregations also have the ability to take the space they can access – determined by resources, networks, etc. – and add function and/or their own aesthetics. In Chapter 6, we have multiple case studies of congregations that took existing buildings and molded them to their purposes. Our cases included converting a former military barracks, a church building constructed by another congregation, a factory, and a high school.
  4. Enhancing and adapting buildings is an ongoing process for both religious buildings and congregations. Over time, a religious buildings could be home to multiple traditions and uses. A congregation may find that its needs evolve or they have different resources. Maintaining a beneficial built environment requires effort beyond the initial design.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: different building energy

As congregations and religious groups look forward to attendance after COVID-19, how the congregation experiences the building and services could change. One religious leader hints at this:

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The All Dulles Area Muslim Society, whose main campus is in Sterling, Virginia, said some of its 11 locations have reopened to worshippers with safety measures.“If COVID is gone 100%, I firmly believe our community would be fully back because people crave … to be together,” said Rizwan Jaka, chair of interfaith and media relations.

This is one way congregations could go: they are excited to fully return and resume activity. The energy a building helps create by fostering community connections and particular worship practices is one that many religious people enjoy. Collective effervescence is an important component of religious congregations as the shared experiences within a confined space provides both collective and individual energy. There is something that happens within that physical space that is difficult to replicate elsewhere, let alone via a streamed service or gathering.

On the other hand, some congregations might find the post-COVID-19 gatherings different in terms of building energy. If you have a large space and it is not as full or if there are noticeable changes to buildings and practices, the collective experience might be something different. Changes take time to adjust to and some buildings may not be as well-suited for the changes COVID-19 wrought.

All of this might be hard to predict after a year-plus of significant time away from a religious building. Do attendees return and remember what made the building important and sacred? Do they come back and experience a letdown with a changed experience and context? As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: using space differently

In thinking about religious services and gathering after the COVID-19 pandemic, how congregations use their physical space may be different. One pastor and lecturer notes what likely helped congregations during COVID-19:

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Those that are successful in reemerging from the COVID-19 lockdowns will likely be those that did a better job adapting to the pandemic, said White-Hammond. Eight in 10 congregants in the U.S. reported that their services were being streamed online, Pew said.

Adaptation comes in multiple forms, including in how congregations use their religious buildings. During COVID-19, buildings may have been empty, changing the regular pattern of use with regular services and meetings. The buildings may have been used but in different ways, perhaps with fewer people attending and/or with spacing to try to cut down on spreading COVID-19.

This could lead to long-term changes to how congregations use their space. Do they need their sanctuary of a particular size? Did they need to make room for a broadcast center (lights, microphones, cameras) to better suit services via Zoom? If congregations are providing food and other things for the community during a time of economic and social trial, do they use kitchens and other spaces more?

The most radical turn might be abandoning larger religious buildings for smaller structures where smaller gatherings can happen and there is all the equipment necessary for permanent streaming capabilities. If attendance goes down and more people are interested in accessing services via the Internet/apps/phones, congregations don’t need the same kind of building. I could even imagine a large congregation moving to an office suite in a building and streaming a full and exciting service from there and having better control over lights, sound, and video.

Congregations will have opportunities to assess their space needs during and after COVID-19. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: building maintenance

As religious groups and congregations ponder attendance post-COVID-19, the condition of their buildings is also important to consider:

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In San Francisco, the historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral survived when members rebuilt after a fire following the 1906 earthquake but it has struggled mightily during the pandemic to stay open.

The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is heavily dependent on older worshippers and tourists, lost most of its revenue after parishes closed during the pandemic. During those “dark hours,” the Rev. John Ardis had to dismiss most of the lay staff, cut the salary of a priest and close the parish preschool.

The plaster is crumbling, the paint is peeling off the walls and dozens of its stained-glass windows need to be replaced.

Any building requires regular maintenance in order for it to best meet the needs of its users. Churches and religious buildings are no exception. Roofs, heaters and air conditioners, floors, walls, paint, exteriors, and more need checking, repairs, and replacing on a cycle.

The example above hints at two problems COVID-19 brings for the maintenance of religious buildings. First, many congregations depend on tithes or gifts from people in order to keep their building in order. If attendance is down or people are not in the building, they may not give as much in order to take care of the structure. With less money, there are needs to prioritize and basics of the building might fall outside of this as the congregation tries to get by. Second, building maintenance might be tied to the regular presence of people within the building. If a congregation does not meet in the structure for months at a time and/or the group meets online, the building is out of sight and out of mind. It does not need to be maintained in the same way as a structure that regularly has people in and out throughout the week.

Those who do return to services and gatherings post-COVID-19 might find the building needs some work. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community. Depending on the age of the structure, the funding during COVID-19, and maintenance over the year-plus, the building may need attention or at least to return to its regular maintenance cycle.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: will they be used again?

What will happen to church attendance after COVID-19 is up in the air with one article suggesting “Surveys do show signs of hopefulness — and also cause for concern.” But, the same piece also hints that some religious buildings will not survive because of the trouble from COVID-19:

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In Maine, Judy Grant, 77, was a newcomer to Waldoboro who started watching the services online and then began attending in person…

“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said. “A lot of churches are closing. I think COVID had a big part in this latest shrinkage, but they were shrinking even before that,” she said…

Afterward, people began removing some of the church’s contents, including religious paintings, some furniture, and other items.

Grant said some hope the building will come alive again with a new congregation: “We have to be positive — and pray.”

With all that has happened, some religious congregations will stop meeting and will no longer need their building. If there is an uptick in closings of religious congregations, there might be a lot of religious buildings on the market as religious groups look to sell empty buildings.

As the example above suggests, the existing religious structure could be used by another religious group. Building a new structure is a costly task and a new congregation might jump at the opportunity to acquire and modify an existing building. The religious building could be converted to another use, whether a business office or residences. Or, a developer might see the land as good site for another use all together. Some religious buildings occupy important spaces in communities.

Even as religious groups respond to the winding down of COVID-19, it will be worth paying attention to religious buildings as well as religious congregations. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

Religious parents, congregations, and passing on faith

Sociologists Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk have a new book where they look at parents and passing down religion to children. In an interview, here is how Smith describes some of the findings:

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The other big surprise was parents’ views of their religious congregations. The common story is that laypeople just want to dump their kids off at church and have religion taken care of by youth ministers. But we found parents just want church to be friendly and a good environment, but they think it’s their job to take care of religious things. That seemed to be kind of a mismatch in how clergy and youth ministers think about parental involvement and the way parents described that involvement…

In the book, you say that a central part of your argument is that what religion is has fundamentally changed from a “communal solidarity project” to a “personal identity accessory.” Can you elaborate briefly on what that means?

This is my historical interpretation of our findings, trying to make the best theoretical sense I can of what’s going on. The idea of a communal solidarity project is that in a former time in American history, religion would have been much more of a collective, community-based experience. It would have been something people shared in common and that had much more of a social dynamic to it. The parents wouldn’t have had so much burden to promote religion because it would’ve just been living in the community. Over time, that world has dissolved…

And you raised the question of mismatch earlier, but I would say this is the real mismatch. Not so much strategy differences between parents and youth ministers, but what church is for. I think some of the main actors that are gathered in congregations have very different ideas of what they’re even doing there. What’s fascinating, sociologically, is how they can continue that mismatch for years and not really figure out the differences between each other—like not really have it dawn on them, “Oh, we have totally different realities going on here.”

These are big picture issues regarding religion in the United States: what is the role or place for parents even alongside the common idea that children should be able to make their own choices? What are religious congregations about: places of religious community and solidarity or places for individual consumers to take what they can get? How do parents and churches interact when their goals might be similar but their means and/or expectations differ?

One notable feature in the books Smith and his colleagues have written about the faith of teenagers and emerging adults is how these patterns among younger adults help shed light on broader patterns in American society. What teenagers take in and how they act does not come out of nowhere. They may be exacerbating existing trends or remixing elements of culture, but they are building on what is already happening with adults, institutions, families, and others.

Seeing changes in suburbs through the presence of religious congregations

Suburban diversity, such as through having more non-white residents and more less wealthy residents, can be seen through what religious congregations are present in a community (and which are not). Three quick examples of congregations near the college campus where I work. Example #1:

It’s a poignant time for Sublett, who grew up in the church and today runs its deacon ministry. His grandfather, Carl Lewis Sublett, was one of the workers on the old Aurora, Elgin and Chicago Railway who helped start the church.

After meeting in the home of Charles Lucas, the church’s founders bought a $150 lot just south of the train tracks at 412 Crescent St. — today the location of St. Joseph’s Christian Orthodox — to build a church of their own.

It went up in an area referred to as “the Bottom,” a patch of lower ground along Crescent and Washington Streets. That, along with a neighborhood to the east of higher ground near Avery Avenue and Prospect Street called “the Hill,” were the two neighborhoods where it was acceptable at the time for African-Americans to live…

Eventually, the church outgrew the building, and on March 17, 1975, members dedicated the new, white-steepled church by walking about a mile east to where it stands at 1520 Avery Ave., according to church records. Sublett has pictures from that day and recalls the work church members put into erecting the church.

Example #2:

St. Joseph’s Orthodox Christian Church was established by a small group of faithful in March 1989. After meeting for five years in rented facilities, the present site was purchased from the DuPage AME Church. The present church was built in 1999. The community, which today serves well over 600 adults and children throughout the Chicago suburbs, is dedicated to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through worship, fellowship, stewardship, and discipleship.

Example #3:

In late August, the Islamic Center of Wheaton bought and moved into the 26,193-square-foot former First Assembly of God Church at 900 E. Geneva Road, at the southwest corner of Geneva Road and President Street. Records show that, through a bank trust, the Islamic Center of Wheaton paid $3.15 million for the church and its 7.08-acre property.

Mosque spokesman Abraham Antar said he and his fellow congregants are excited about their new home, which he said is Wheaton’s first Muslim community.

“Wheaton is a city of faith, and we’re very privileged to be able to establish an Islamic community for Wheaton and especially for the western suburbs,” he said. “There are a lot of Muslims in Wheaton and the surrounding towns. It’s unfortunate for the (First Assembly of God) church that they lost their opportunity to stay there.”

That these three congregations meet and worship in a community known for its wealth, political conservatism, and concentration of evangelical residents and organizations says something. And these changes in religious groups are happening across many American suburbs; religious groups that even a few decades ago would not have been present now have thriving congregations.

The best scholarly text I know on the subject is the 2015 book Religion and Community in the New Urban America. The authors draw upon decades of research in religious change in the Chicago region, examine patterns across different religious traditions in suburbs, and look at different ways new congregations engage with the communities in which they are located.

(At the same time, the presence of new religious groups does not necessarily guarantee significant other changes in communities. Indeed, attempts by new religious groups to construct, purchase, or renovate buildings can invite concern and backlash.)