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Intersecting Snapshots: The American Mainline Church and the UCC

As seen in the United Church of Christ's Vital Signs and Statistics Blog

Are the changes and trends that are occurring in the American Protestant Church—and particularly, in the old mainline (e.g., Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist) congregations—also evident in the United Church of Christ (UCC)?

Obviously, the United Church of Christ is a mainline Protestant denomination.  Yet it may be distinguished from the old mainline by its relatively brief history (the UCC was founded in 1957);  by its “united and uniting” character; and by the quirky but joyous mix of “progressive” and “traditional” congregants who worship side-by-side in UCC churches every Sunday.  So this question may be of some interest to us.

A series of intersecting “snapshots” of the American mainline and the UCC—in the form of research and polling undertaken in 2015, 2016, and 2017—suggest that the answer to the question I posed above is a qualified yes.

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, our “nation’s religious makeup has shifted dramatically in the past 15 years, with a sharp drop in the number of Americans who say they’re members of a Protestant denomination, and a rise in the number who profess no religion” (Allison de Jong, “Protestants Decline, More Have No Religion in a Sharply Shifting Religious Landscape,” ABC News, May 10, 2018).

The poll found that “36 percent of Americans” said they were “members of a Protestant faith,” a decrease “from 50 percent in 2003. That includes an 8-point drop in the number of evangelical white Protestants. The share of Christians overall has declined from 83 percent of the U.S. population in 2003 to 72 percent” in 2017.  During the same period, “the number of Americans who say they have no religion has nearly doubled,” from 12 percent “to 21 percent.  This analysis is based on a large dataset, [comprised of] 174,485 random-sample telephone interviews.”

According to this data, being a “None”—“having no religious affiliation—is most prevalent among 18-to-29-year-olds, at 35 percent, [versus] 13 percent among those age 50 and older.  “None” status is also higher among men than women (25 [versus] 17 percent), among college graduates [than] those without a degree (25 [versus] 20 percent), and among whites and Hispanics than blacks (22 and 20 percent [versus] 15 percent).”

These results are in broad agreement with other research.  According to Barna Group polling conducted in 2016-2017, “the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning.  Rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have been dropping for decades.” Many of these trends are generational:  “Three out of four Baby-Boomers are Protestant or Catholic Christians (75%), while just three in five 13-to-18-year-olds (59%)” [define themselves as] Christian (59%).”  More than half of churchgoing teens say that church involvement is either “not too important” (27%) or “not at all” important (27%), and three out of five (61%) of these teens say that they can “find God elsewhere.”  Only one in five of all churchgoing teens says that attending church is “very important (20%).”  Thirty-six percent say that “church people are hypocritical.”  Over one-quarter (27 percent) claim that “the church is not a safe place to express doubts,” and 24 percent say that the [church’s] teaching is “shallow.”  Moreover,“the percentage of teens who identify as atheist is double that of the general population” (“Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z,” Barna Group, January 24, 2018).

Although “the Church has been a cornerstone of American life for centuries,” today, more Americans—and more “Millennials in particular—are experiencing and practicing their faith outside of its four walls.”  And given their increased “skepticism and cynicism toward institutions, [their] growing antagonism toward faith claims,” and “the broader secularizing trend in American culture,” there should be little wonder that the Church is in decline (“The State of the Church,” Barna Group, September 15, 2016).

According to Duke University and University College (London) polling, “41 percent” of Americans who are “70 and older said they attend church services at least once a month, compared to just 18 percent [among those] 60 [years old] and younger” (Eric Ferreri, “American Religion Not as Exceptional as We Think,” Duke Today, March 9, 2016).

In 1972, 28% of “Americans identified with a mainline denomination,” such as the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the UCC.  Today, “that number has dropped to 12.2%.”  Many if not most denominations are reporting annual membership losses (Ed Stetzer, “The State of the Church in America: When Numbers Point To A New Reality,” Christianity Today, September 16, 2016.

After examining this data closely, Atlantic contributing editor and City University of New York professor Peter Beinart noted that “when pundits describe Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters” and disenchanted former congregants of Mainline churches.  “But religious attendance [and affiliation are] down among Republicans” and Evangelicals, too.  According to Public Religion Research Institute data, the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990” (Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith,” Atlantic, April 2017).

And according to statistics released in advance of the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting, SBC “memberships [have] declined for the 10th straight year, [and] baptisms [have] dropped to the lowest level in 70 years (Bob Allen, “Southern Baptists Have Lost A Million Members in 10 years,”, June 9, 2017).

The SBC “report[ed] a combined membership of 15,216,978 [individual members] for the church year in 2016.  That’s a loss of 77,786 members from 2015.  Between 2014 and 2015 Southern Baptists lost 204,409 members, and 236,467 the year before.  Today there are 1 million fewer Southern Baptists than a decade ago.”

Data from “The United Church of Christ:  A Statistical Profile (Research from the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data [CARD]),” of Fall 2016, correlates strongly with the ABC News/Washington Post and Barna research findings.  Thus, the number of UCC congregations declined from 8,297 in 1955, to 5,633 in 2005, and 5,032 in 2015.  UCC membership receded, from 2,123,792 in 1955, to 1,229,953 in 2005, to 914,871 in 2015.  In addition, participation in “Christian Education/Faith Formation programming” is down;   today, “roughly 2 out of every 10 [UCC] people” attend such events (pp. 3, 10).

The UCC statistical profile also includes demographic and financial information about congregations and their members and leaders.  A substantial 84.9% of UCC congregations, and 88% of UCC authorized ministers “identify as white/Euro-American,” and “80.1 % of active [UCC] ministers [are] age 50” or older (pp. 1, 16-17).  The number of active female ordained ministers increased significantly over the last decade, from 31.9% in 2005 to 49.0% in 2015.”  Today, over one-third (38.1%) of all UCC pastors are women, compared with 30.2% in 2005.  “Over half of co-pastors (55.2%) and interim/designated-term/supply pastors (51.2%) are [women], and two-thirds [of]associate/assistant pastors” (66.4%)” are women (pp. 18-19).

“Operating expenses for an average [UCC] congregation in 2015 [amounted to] $168,400—an increase of 20% over $140,647 ten years earlier.  But giving to “Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) represented [only] 4.3% of local congregations’ total expenditures [in] 2015”—a decrease from 5.8% a decade earlier (p. 21).

“Nearly half (47.8%) of all UCC congregations have 50 or fewer people in attendance at worship each week, and eight in ten (81.2%) have 100 or fewer people in weekly worship;”  such smaller churches “are less likely to have a website or use electronic technology,” and have “fewer participants who [are] daily internet/social media users;”  they “are more likely to have a part-time and/or bi-vocational pastor, as well as a shorter-tenured pastor;”  they may “adap[t] less readily to change,” and may not be “as willing to make changes;”  and they may be “more uncertain about their future as a congregation.”

Relatedly, the UCC’s 2015 Faith Communities Today National Survey of Congregations (CARD) revealed that 70% of all UCC churches are located in rural areas, villages, towns, or small cities;  and that the percentage of UCC churches having no pastor has increased since 2010 from 3% to 5.5%.

2015 survey respondents described UCC worship as: thought-provoking (85.4%); filled with a sense of God’s presence (85.1%); nurturing of people’s faith (84.3%); joyful (79.5%); inspirational (79.0%); and reverent (69.0%). UCC worship was less often described as: intergenerational (54.1%); and innovative (33.7%).

Similarly, UCC congregants said that the programs and activities featured in their churches strongly emphasize:  community service (69.3%);  fellowship and social activities (63.0%);  and music (56.3%).  Such programs and activities place less emphasis on:  Scripture and theological studies (36.4%);  youth (27.0%);  prayer or meditation groups and spiritual retreats (15.2%);  and young adults (7.1%).

So what does all of this data mean?  In general terms, these intersecting “snapshots” suggest that UCC churches are at least as vital as—and possibly, more vital than—their mainline counterparts.  UCC congregants seem to experience their own faith and their churches’ worship and faith-formation programs more positively than Barna’s 2009 survey respondents did.  But worrisome UCC trends include declining worship service attendances and a concomitant rise in part-time churches led by part-time ministers;  reduced giving by congregants to OCWM, and perhaps, to their churches’ general budgets and missions/outreach programs;  and mounting deficits in many church and Conference budgets.