By Cynthia Woolever
Accurately tracking congregational trends is not easy. Our local, regional, and denominational experiences can lead us to magnify some changes and miss others altogether. As a way of countering this natural myopia, we asked a national random sample of congregations to report on four possible events that their church may have faced during the past five years. Analyzing their responses allows us to capture some five-year patterns.
Changing the church’s name. Over the past five years, about 6% of congregations across the U.S. changed their name. While this percentage appears small, it means that an estimated 4,000 churches nationally change their name in a typical year.[i] The reasons prompting a name change vary. Some churches wish to drop their denominational label, others merge with another congregation and need a joint name, and still others move to another location and want the name to reflect the new geography.
Among Presbyterian churches, however, name changes are uncommon (see the table below). Only 1% of PC(USA) congregations officially changed their church name in the past five years. New Presbyterian churches (those founded in the past 20 years) are much more likely to take on a name change than more established congregations. Five percent of newer congregations changed their names in the past five years. Growing PC(USA) churches are almost as likely as newer congregations to undertake a new name—4% did so in the past five years.
Moving to a new location. Four percent of congregations nationally reported moving to a new physical location in the past five years. Again, even though this percentage seems small, it translates into 2,640 congregations across the U.S. moving in an average year.
Again, like name changes, although only a small number of Presbyterian churches move in a typical year, the numbers are substantially higher among new and fast growing PC(USA) churches. Over the past five years, one in five new congregations moved to a new location. This high percentage suggests that new churches may begin their ministry in a temporary worship space before building or finding a permanent church home. Growing congregations also report moving to a different place. About 7% of fast growing PC(USA) church sought out a new site in the past five years. Seeking a new location can be the result of out-growing current worship spaces or aggressively moving nearer specific populations for increased ministry outreach.
Absorbing another congregation, which closed. This trend does not occur as often as might be popularly believed. Our survey found that relatively few churches take on another church when it closes. In fact, only 1% of congregations nationally reported doing so in the past five years. Among Presbyterian churches, absorbing another church is rare. The highest percentage of such absorption—which is still only 4%—is among growing PC(USA) congregations.
Merging with another congregation. In a merger, two congregations agree to be a single church with a new name and identity. This is different from the event described above where one church absorbs another church, which then closed. In a real sense, both churches cease to exist as their former institution. Mergers, like absorbing churches, are relatively rare across the country and among Presbyterian churches. Surprisingly, new PC(USA) churches are the more likely to merge with another congregation (3% reported doing so in the past five years).
The church—a stable American institution. Compared to the average “small business,” congregations show remarkable stability over time. They tend to remain in the same geographic location, with the same name, and with the same membership. Occasionally, two churches find it makes sense to merge but that is an unusual outcome.
How can your congregation and community benefit from such a long-standing relationship? Over the years, churches must find new answers to the old question: “What is God calling us to be and do in this place?”
[i] The national trend data is reported in Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 27-29.