Study Says, Church Attendance Is Declining, but Revenue is Not

(Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash)

All the available hard evidence—not to mention a look around many houses of worship—shows that religious congregations are declining. As congregants increasingly head for the exits, younger Americans, who say they have no religion, are far less likely than previous generations to join a church.

But a new nationally representative study from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds that revenue is not necessarily declining along with attendance. In fact, the study finds that nearly half of America’s estimated 360,000 congregations saw an increase in giving from three years ago.

The study, which included a representative sample of 1,231 congregations—including churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship—found that 48% of congregations saw an increase in revenue, 35% saw a decrease and 17% said giving remained the same.

The median annual revenue for a religious congregation was $169,000 in 2017. (The study was fielded in 2018 and consisted of a questionnaire completed by the congregational leader, or financial administrator.)

The news about giving is surprising given that the study found that participation remained flat. In the study, 39% of congregations reported an increase in participation, 38% reported a decrease and 23% saw no change.

The study, titled “National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices,” found that Roman Catholic churches face the greatest challenges, with more than half of all parishes declining in both size and revenue over the past three years. Mainline Protestants fared slightly better. While participation remained flat in mainline churches, 48% reported growth in revenue and another 14% reported revenues had remained the same.

White evangelicals and black Protestants fared best, with 62% of African American congregations reporting an increase in regularly participating adults and 59% reporting increases in revenue.

“We’re not hiding the fact that there are many congregations experiencing decline, or that it’s a major success to be simply maintaining,” said David P. King, director of the Lake Institute and a co-director of the study. “But despite a narrative of decline for religiosity in America, there’s a wide diversity of what’s happening. A decline in participation does not necessarily equate with (a decline) in finances.”

Or as the study succinctly states: “Among congregations that are declining in attendance, there is not necessarily an automatic corresponding decline in revenue.”

The reasons for the seeming anomaly are complicated and vary from one congregation to another. It may be that fewer people are shouldering a greater share of the congregation’s donations. Or it could be that congregations are finding alternative streams of revenue, from renting their facilities for weddings or conferences to operating schools or day care centers. Others saw revenue from bequests or gifts, or, in the case of more established historic churches, from their endowments. (The study found an average of 34% of congregations have endowments.)

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SOURCE: Charisma News