What size are most congregations?

A few weeks ago we had an earthquake here in Virginia. I just found out on Sunday that our bell tower at our church in Alexandria experienced significant structural damage from the quake (my husband thought it would have been cool if the bell itself had cracked — it didn’t).

In any case, the Associated Press reported on one congregation that will have to rebuild its entire sanctuary. Here’s how it begins:

Members of the tiny congregation of a church rocked by a Virginia-centered earthquake are launching a fund-drive to restore their sanctuary.

The 5.8-magnitude quake Aug. 23 rocked the Gilboa Christian Church in Cuckoo, which is located near the epicenter of the quake in Mineral. The church dates to 1857 and has between 50 and 75 members.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Peggy Albright, who has attended services at the church for nearly 80 years, told The Daily Progress of Charlottesville.

Church members agreed to raise an estimated $350,000 to restore the church, which suffered structural damage. The congregation was to meet at a nearby community center Sunday to worship.

It couldn’t be a more straightforward story but what struck me was that a congregation with as many as 75 members would be described as “tiny.” I’m not entirely sure how many members my congregation has but I’d guess it’s somewhere between 200 and 300 members. I never know how to describe this size — is that small? Is it medium? I know it’s not a megachurch, but other than that, I’m not sure what the relative size is.

I know I’m not alone because I hear people all the time say that their congregational size is small. But I remember reading that the typical congregation is actually much smaller than people realize. I found Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research had something that might help:

Q: What’s the size of U.S. churches?
A: The median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings, according to the National Congregations Study http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/ . Notice that researchers measured the median church size — the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger — rather than the average (186 attenders reported by the USCLS survey http://www.uscongregations.org/charact-cong.htm ), which is larger due to the influence of very large churches. But while the United States has a large number of very small churches, most people attend larger churches. The National Congregations Study estimated that the smaller churches draw only 11 percent of those who attend worship. Meanwhile, 50 percent of churchgoers attended the largest 10% of congregations (350 regular participants and up).
Want to know more? Check the websites for the National Congregations Study at http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/ The US Congregational Life Survey (USCLS) website has statistics about congregations by religious traditions at http://www.uscongregations.org/

I’m not sure how many of the members of the church in question are active participants, and no one would argue that a congregation with as many as 75 members is huge or anything. But I still wonder if we don’t have a problem of imagining that the average or median church size is much larger than it is. I have friends who are members of congregations plenty smaller than the one in question. How should their congregational size be described? Teensie? I also wonder if our perceptions — rather than statistical analysis — doesn’t affect media coverage of congregations. Do journalists think that the typical congregation is much larger than it is?

In the case you’re interested, I’ve included a graph from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research that shows the breakdown. And the picture above is from the congregation’s Facebook page.

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  • Dave

    Possibly journalists who do not attend church themselves recall being taken to church as kids on special holy days, when there’s typically an unusually large turnout, and got imprinted with that crowd as sort of “standard,” against which actual contemporary church sizes are measured.

  • Mike O.

    This is an interesting question. It reminded me I was recently on the Small Business Administration page trying to determine if the company I work for is a small or mid-size company. On that page it first breaks down what constitutes a small business based on the type of industry and then looks at either the business’s number of employees or its yearly receipts. But even with a somewhat rigid definition customers at my office have referred to it as both a small and mid-size company.

    I wonder if there are two other factors involved in gauging if congregation is large, medium, or small: The state it’s in and the denomination. My parents attend a Roman Catholic church in New Jersey that if I had to guess has 300 or so attendees. Since the state has a large, dense population with many Catholics that number might be considered mid-size by some; but these same attendees in a less populated and/or less Catholic state might be seen as a large congregation.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Part of the problem here is that since the 1960s, huge numbers of Americans have stopped going to church, so that today’s churches were often built for much larger congregations. A congregation of 100 people in a church that was built for 300 may be, statistically, on the medium to large size, but it certainly FEELS small when you see the building 2/3 empty.

    In terms of gauging whether the church is large or small, it would probably be best to log-transform the data before looking at it.

  • Ray Marshall

    “My parents attend a Roman Catholic church in New Jersey that if I had to guess has 300 or so attendees.”

    When one is estimating the size of Catholic parishes, you should take into consideration that must Catholic churches have 2-4 Masses, including one on Saturday evening. Larger parishes may have six or more Masses, including some on Sunday evenings, too. So visual estimates of a church attendance aren’t comparable unless the number of Masses at that parish are given.

    The chart refers to “weekly worshipers.” That would seem to give it some validity.

    Of course larger protestant church have multiple services too. Official records of the denomination are the only valid (and possibly inflated) data

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In one respect not mentioned here the large churches owe a debt of gratitude to the small Protestant churches for saving them from taxation.
    In the past a number of states have toyed with the idea of levying property taxes on churches. The politicians see the big Catholic churches and the Protestant mega-churches as fat, juicy targets for them to financially raid.
    But then the truth comes out–thousands of small congregations would have to close down their churches since they are living on the financial edge to begin with. (Some denominations average only 40 people attending their churches each week.)
    It would virtually wipe out many parishes and possibly whole denominations more effectively than what went on behind the Iron Curtain under Communism.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    In a news story, it would probably be more useful to talk about the average Sunday attendance rather than number of members. A church with 50 to 75 members could have have attendance of only a family or two (and that would be tiny) or something in the hundreds or more (if it’s a church that doesn’t emphasize formal membership).

    In any case, I’m not sure I would consider a congregation that is capable of raising $350,000 as tiny, unless it has some wealthy benefactors. That’s a significant amount of money (although it probably wouldn’t go very if the reconstruction is major).

  • Ben

    This reminds me of the time I put “tiny Bhutan” in a headline and we received spirited feedback refuting why the nation was in fact not tiny at all. No one seems to appreciate being called tiny. So it’s probably a word to avoid in favor of small if you want to keep small circulations from becoming tiny.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    That’s hilarious, Ben.

    I actually used to see “Tiny Bhutan” so much in headlines that I wondered if that weren’t part of its name.

    Still, compared to other countries, that is a perfectly fine adjective, no?

    I’m just not sure we have a good grasp of the typical or average size of congregations … unlike countries.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: The state it’s in and the denomination. My parents attend a Roman Catholic church in New Jersey that if I had to guess has 300 or so attendees. Since the state has a large, dense population with many Catholics that number might be considered mid-size by some; but these same attendees in a less populated and/or less Catholic state might be seen as a large congregation.

    Sunday mass attendance is also morally obligatory for Catholics, which probably contributes to the fact that RC congregations are usually much bigger. I’d consider 300 congregants large for an Episcopalian or Congregational church, but probably standard size for an urban RC church.

  • Mary Lou Alexander

    I’m curious as to why the study excluded Catholic/Orthodox, according to the chart.

  • dalea

    Interesting study. I wonder if it excludes the ‘new’ religions or lumps them into the miscellaneous 12,000 others. What I would be interested in seeing is a comparison of attendance with membership. Are there churches that have a large membership but low participation. I have known of churches that had large numbers of their members in nursing homes, in fact one where all the living members were in nursing homes. It would be interesting to see how many receive religious services outside the regular events.

    A geographical spread would help. It would be interesting to know where the various sized churches are. And how current size relates to size in the 50′s.

    From the article:

    The earthquake cracked the sanctuary’s four walls, making it unsafe to use.

    What does this mean? A picture of the damage would have really helped in understanding.

  • Dave

    dalea, there’s an interesting church statistic in this field that I’m told is true across denominations. If the number of typical worship-service attendees is more than half the total number of members of record — not half the members, just a comparison of the two numbers — that congregation is growing. When worship attendance is less that half of the membership count, the congregation is declining.

  • melxiopp

    Comparisons that do not include the single largest church body in America (the Catholic Church) are bound to skew the results of those comparisons. With Catholic churches included, I think the average size of a church in America might skew upward substantially – especially in large urban areas, especially in the Nonrtheast corridor between DC and Boston.

    To supplement the incomplete data set from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research study given above, here is some data on Catholic churches in the US from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate based at Georgetown University in Washington:

    In 2000, just one-quarter of the nation’s parishes had more than 1,200 registered households. By 2010 that had grown to one-third. At the lower end, parishes with fewer than 200 registered households dropped from one-fourth of the nation’s total in 2000 to barely more than one in seven a decade later (24 percent to 15 percent).

    The overall average size of parishes grew 36 percent, from 855 households in 2000 to 1,167 in 2010….

    Mary Gautier, editor of The CARA Report, said the average size of a U.S. Catholic household is the same as the national average, 2.6 persons per household. So a parish of 1, 167 registered households would have about 3,000 registered members. (http://fwd4.me/0AzN)

    In addition,

    In the last decade, through a combination of closing and mergers, U.S. Catholic Church leaders have reduced the number of parishes in the United States by 1,359 (a decline of 7.1 percent). In 2000, the Church had more than 19,000 parishes nationally and by decade’s end it had fewer than 17,800, almost the same number it had in 1965. (http://fwd4.me/0AzO)

    While most Americans are Protestant, this demographic is divided into a large number of separate church bodies meaning most Protestant churches are far smaller than the average Catholic church.

    Add to that the fact that most unchurched Americans (including unchurched or lapsed faith journalists) are likely to be more familiar with larger and/or historic churches, so it’s possible that their image of the “average church” looks a lot more like the large, local Catholic church or Protestant megachurch than it does than the smaller churches around the country that are by dint of their size (physically as well as numerically) less visible.

    We might be comparing apples to oranges here and critiquing a journalist’s perspective on the basis that he/she doesn’t share your perspective (and experience of smaller churches).

  • melxiopp

    Raising the issue of average congregational size without including the Catholic Church (68,503,456 members according to the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches) in a discussion of whether a congregation of 50 and 75 members is “tiny” or not – and whether the use of this adjective says something relevant about whether journalists “get religion” – is silly. It would seem to either point in the direction of amateurish critique, or bias in favor of “real Christians” (i.e., Protestants, not Catholics).

    Of course, the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches isn’t measuring “weekly worshipers”. Hartford finds there are 56 million weekly (Protestant) worshipers in the US while the Yearbook finds there to be 75,834,883 Protestant ‘members’ (145,838,339 total minus Catholic and Greek Orthodox members) in the largest 25 Christian denominations in the US. Assuming, for the sake of argument, there is a similar ratio of ‘weekly worshipers’ to ‘members’ in the Catholic Church (73.8 : 100), the study above is missing 51,693,803 weekly worshipers (RC + GO). That is, the study is missing almost half of all weekly worshipers in the US, an ‘almost half’ that worships in parishes whose the average size is 1,167 registered households (about 3,000 registered members) in under 17,800 parishes. (Using the same ratio, that would assume an median of approximately 2000 weekly worshipers per RC parish.) Thus, the total ‘weekly worshiper’ population would be around 107,693,803 worshiping in 317,800 congregations/parishes with an average size of 339. (I’m sure this would skew even higher in high population regions alone, too, such as the Northeast, California, Texas and Florida or our major metropolitan regions around the country.)

    So, yes, even a rough statistical analysis like this (and it is admittedly very rough) would point to the fact that a congregation of 50 and 75 members is and should rightly be described as “tiny” – at least as compared to the total population of Christians in the US (rather than to the total population of Protestants in the US, or to the average size of congregations in confessional, LCMS or ECUSA denominations.)


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