A few years ago the Faith Formation 2020 National Initiative did a considerable amount of research into demographic trends in Christian churches in the U.S.  Part of the motivation was a concern for an across the board decline in attendance and membership (yes, even among Southern Baptists and Evangelicals!)  The goal was to envision what the church might look like in 2020. The authors identified 13 trends affecting church today.

The original article is no longer available on their website (it’s been made into a book), but the identification of the  trends is useful.  As a Unitarian minister, I found a couple of them surprising, a few of them encouraging for us in the less orthodox end of the pool and a few fairly obvious.  So here they are with my comments.

13 Trends Affecting Congregations

  1. Declining participation in Christian Churches. Most of my Canadian Unitarian colleagues note the truth in this.  In some cases attendance is dropping, financial support is falling off and traditional volunteer support (meaning committee work) is harder and harder to find. Personally, I have noted a decline in attendance at worship, but with an increasing intensity and consistency in the remaining worshipers. The people who enjoy the traditional Sunday experience embrace it passionately.
  2.  Growth in No religious affiliation and …
  3. Becoming “more spiritual and less “religious” These two characteristics have been a fact of life in urban Canada for a long time.  Canadian weekly church attendance is somewhat less than in the U.S. so I suppose this trend is less surprising for us.  By the way, if you want to take a break see a funny and accurate YouTube clip about how often thoughts like this are expressed to working clergy check out these Harvard Divinity students:
  4. Influence of Individualism on Christian Identity and Community Life I can’t say I found this to be a stimulating or disturbing trend.  Unitarians tend to be defined by their individuality, even when we love community.  We have always spoken our views freely.  Conformity is not highly valued.
  5. Increasing Social, Cultural, and Religious Diversity in the U.S.  Social and cultural diversity is visible in the streets all over North America and despite our myth of multiculturalism in Canada, there are increasing social tensions.  Still, Unitarianism has always been a small church appealing to a self-selecting group of people.  If anything, the need for a liberal voice to help bridge social diversity offers us some hope.  Interfaith work is one niche we can fill.
  6. Growing Influence of Hispanic/Latino Religious Faith. This specific group is not such an issue in Canada, although as noted above we do have our diversity challenges, most notably with our First Nations citizens, and secondarily with the French majority in Quebec.  It’s just not so focused on a single minority up here, although in certain cities and regions there are significant minority populations from one group.
  7. Identifying a New Stage of Life: Emerging Adulthood” Here they were talking about the so-called ‘Millennial Generation’ of 18-30 year olds.  For a fuller description check out a previous postThis trend is a large part of this blog.
  8. The Rise of a Distinctive Post-Boomer Faith and Spirituality This point had some good detailed information.  I will go into it in a post next week.
  9. Changing Structures and Patterns of Family Life in the U.S. Once again, this is not so shocking or troubling a trend for Unitarians.  It has been a long time since we were overly concerned with traditional family structures.  We tend to have a very fluid, open and accepting idea of what defines family.  That said it is worth mentioning that the pattern of secularization of society has meant changed family habits if not structures.  There is more competition for churches from children’s sports and other activities, from shopping etc. etc.
  10. Rediscovering the Impact of Parents and Families on Faith Practice   I don’t think this was their point, but in my lifetime I have noticed the trend where parents are more involved in all aspects of their children’s lives and development than when I was a kid…long ago and far away.  Of course back in those ancient days, attending church was  a family event.  These days, when there is lighter attendance, I still think parents are spending a lot of time on values education instead of discipline.
  11. Living in a Digital World and…
  12. Educating in New Ways  Though they needed to be stated, these were also obvious points.  Schools have changed and the young ‘digital natives’ are developing whole new ways of learning and handling information, of creating community and participating in creating learning.
  13. Increasing numbers of Adults 65 and Over. At the 2011 CUC Annual Conference and Meeting, economist and demographer David Foot shared this research with us.  There is a very large bulge of Boomers entering late middle age.  But instead of seeing this as some kind of beginning of the end, Foot encouraged us to see this as a huge potential target market for Unitarians.  Why?  A lot of people who have lived their lives without church are entering a kind of philosophical stage of life with more time on their hands.  Church has a chance to provide some needed community and other services.  The implication is that while the religious landscape might be changing, there will still be a continuing need for congregational work throughout this next 20 year generational span.  That’s about as far ahead as we can think, because I bet no one has a clue what the post-millennials (like my daughters) will be up to.