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Mar 23, 2011 | Mary Frances Schjonberg

Study Finds Congregations Increasing Their Digital Presence

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Church congregations are more and more turning to the internet and social media in particular to communicate with their members and their communities, according to a just-released summary of a nationwide survey of faith communities.


Results for Episcopalians in the Faith Communities Today Survey (FACT) show that 95 percent of congregations surveyed report that they use email to communicate with members and 86 percent have websites. The latter is an increase from 81 percent in 2008 and 76 percent in 2005. Forty-one percent report having used Facebook or other social media in 2010. Congregations frequently reported using electronic newsletters, text messaging and Twitter, the survey said.


The findings are based on responses from 837 Episcopal parishes and missions that completed the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey (a 76% response rate), according to the report's summary written by C. Kirk Hadaway, Episcopal Church officer for congregational research. The data were weighted by size and region to be representative of all Episcopal congregations.


A more detailed report of FACT findings will be posted here later in 2011. Summaries from the 2008 survey and one in 2005 are also available there.


In the summary of Episcopal Church findings from the 2010 survey, 43 percent of respondents strongly agreed that their congregation "wants to grow" and another 46 percent agreed with that statement. In the 2005 survey, 58% of the congregation strongly agreed with the statement, Hadaway told Episcopal News Service, adding that the question was not asked in 2008.


"Wanting to grow is related to growth, but does not ensure growth," Hadaway wrote in the 2010 survey summary. "However, not caring about growth nearly ensures decline."


Ninety-one percent of those surveyed also reported that they have conducted special events or programs designed to attract people from the community, although 37 percent said they have done so only once or twice in the last year.


Hadaway also noted that growing congregations were most likely to strongly agree that they are "spiritually vital and alive," have a "strong mission and purpose," are "moral beacons" in their communities, and are "willing to change to meet new challenges." And, being a congregation that says it is like a "close-knit family" is "only marginally related to growth in worship attendance," he said.


The survey also found that congregations rating themselves as "very liberal" were most likely to have grown in worship attendance (38 percent), followed by congregations that are "somewhat liberal" (32 percent) or "very conservative" (30 percent).


The survey also found that:


  • More than half (52.4 percent) of all Episcopal congregations had an average attendance of 70 or fewer persons in 2009, as compared with 50.7 percent in 2007, according to data from the church's annual Parochial Report, which all congregations are canonically required to submit. The median Episcopal congregation had 66 persons at Sunday worship in 2009, compared to 72 in 2006 and 77 in 2003. The National Congregations Study reports that the median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings.
  • Of congregations with a single worship service each weekend, 50% report that the service is less than one third full. In 2008, three-fourths of similar congregations reported that their services ran at 40 percent or less of capacity.
  • The median Episcopal congregation had 160 active members in 2009, according Parochial Report data, down from 182 in 2003.
  • The membership of the median Episcopal congregation is 60% female.
  • The majority (86.7%) of Episcopalians are white/European American.
  • The large majority (69%) of Episcopal congregations report that more than half of their members are age 50 or older. Overall, 30 percent of Episcopal church members are age 65 or older, as compared to only 13% of the U.S. population. In the last survey, that portion stood at 27 percent.
  • Seventy percent of congregations surveyed said their income declined during the 2008-2009 recession and only 28 percent report that their finances were "excellent" or "good" in 2011. In 2000, the proportion of congregations in excellent or good financial condition was 56 percent. The proportion in serious or some financial difficulty almost doubled from 2000 to 2005.


A similar summary of results of Presbyterian congregations participating in the FACT study is here.


-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.