Landscape for congregations calls for redesign and watering

A new study from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reveals implications for churches.

By George W. Bullard Jr.

The landscaping around my house is a long way from achieving yard of the month status. Some trees and plants need to be removed or pruned and new ones should be planted. My yard also requires a lot more water than a rain-starved region will allow.

This is not unlike the U.S. religious landscape according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008 from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life ( The survey, according to its sponsors, “includes reliable estimates of the size of religious groups in the United States as well as detailed information on their demographic characteristics, religious beliefs and practices, and basic social and political values.”

The findings from this survey are significant and the implications for congregations are far reaching. It calls for a redesigning of the U.S. religious landscape, and each of us must do our part. While there are many insights offered by the study, there are four specific ones church leaders should consider.

Four insights from the study

Insight One: “Despite predictions the United States would follow Europe’s path towards widespread secularization, the U.S. population remains highly religious in its beliefs and practices, and religion continues to play a prominent role in American public life.”

Implications for congregations:

  1. American society will continue as a nominally churched culture, which means congregations can assume at least some knowledge of spiritual principles and practices in many preChristians and unchurched persons.
  2. The spiritual principles and practices of people in American society will be increasingly less like what Protestant congregations have known in past decades and will call for Protestant churches to re-educate its membership to the principles and practices of spiritual travelers in the 21st century.
  3. Politicians will continue to want to use congregations to get their message across to their constituents and be seen favorably among Protestants as persons of solid spiritual moorings.

Insight Two: “More that one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion — or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, roughly 44 percent of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.”

Implications for congregations:

  1. Even when a strong faith and fellowship background is provided for children who grow up in your congregation, you cannot expect them to be members and leaders of your congregation in adulthood. This is not just because people move to another town, city, state, or country, but also nine out of 20 of them are switching their religious affiliation or dropping out of public religious practice.
  2. An increasing number of your members and leaders will not have a lifelong orientation to your congregation, your denomination or to the Christian faith. They will need basic and simple as well as advanced and complicated understandings of faith and practice.
  3. Increasingly congregations will not be able to search for new members among people who are oriented to their denominational ethos. Congregations must be willing to cross various denominational, theological, cultural, religious and demographic barriers to attract new members.

Insight Three: “The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1 percent) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.”

Implications for congregations:

  1. What we have suspected appears to be true — some children who grow up in church wander away from faith practice in a local congregation by the time they are adults.
  2. Twentysomethings are especially unchurched. Congregations continue to find it difficult to provide true and relevant ministry to this age group.
  3. New congregations or new ministry initiatives by existing congregations may be the best way to speak to the spiritual seeking of twentysomethings.

Insight Four: “More than six-in-ten Americans age 70 and older (62 percent) are Protestant but … this number is only about four-in-ten (43 percent) among American ages 18-29.”

This is one of the insights from the research that may be a snapshot, but it is impossible to figure out the trends and challenging to see the implications. Insights such as this will be of greater value if this research is repeated about every five to 10 years using the same research framework.

Implications for congregations:

  1. Protestant congregations may be losing the younger generations. Certainly younger generations are more diverse in their religious expression and affiliations.
  2. Some of this statistical difference may be explained by the stereotypical understanding that twentysomethings are less engaged in congregations than any other adult age decade.
  3. Congregations must adapt their approaches to address the spiritual search of young adults.

What should be the response of your congregation to the current state of the religious landscape?

Three different types of congregations need to make significant responses to the current religious landscape. First, clearly identified denominationally-focused congregations that are more than 25 years old should be continually repositioned to meet the spiritual and socialization needs of younger generations searching for genuine and meaningful Christ-centered experiences.

Expand and diversify

Second, large innovative congregations need to be sure they are not stuck with too strong of a focus on one generation of seekers. These congregations should expand and diversify their programs, ministries and activities — along with their staff — to focus on each new generation of seekers.

Third, new congregations don’t have to be a franchise of an existing congregation. I recommend they implement a lead missional approach to interact with the context they feel called to serve, and design a congregation centered on their core values.

The findings of the study have many more implications for congregations, but these four are essential for church leaders to consider. (Additional insights can be viewed at As churches grapple with the changes in culture and needs of their surrounding communities, leaders can use this new information for managing and leading effective congregations.

George W. Bullard Jr. is a ministry partner and strategic leadership coach with The Columbia Partnership, Columbia, SC.  []


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