Are 6,000 to 10,000 Churches Closing Annually In The United States?

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It is widely accepted that 6,000-10,000 churches close annually in the United States as church attendance declines, but is that actually true?

Casidy McGillicuddy has a thorough look at this claim and, well, it’s complicated.

McGillicuddy’s research turned up a journal article by Duke University sociologist Simon Brauer that mined the National Congregations Study conducted in 1998, 2006 and 2012. The NCS attempts to survey “a representative sample of America’s churches, synagogues, mosques and other local places of worship.”

Brauer’s conclusion is that, based on the best available data, the number of religious congregations increased from 1998 to 2012, though the growth is in non-denominational congregations (whereas a lot of the estimates of decline appear to rely on self-reported figures by denominational organizations).

Given these data, a reasonably cautious interpretation of the results is that congregations, particularly nondenominational Protestant congregations, grew in number into the mid-2000s but remained essentially stable after that. However, if we take the most cautious approach and assume that no change has occurred, the best estimate for the number of congregations from 1998 to 2012 is 378,000.

The 6,000 to 10,000 figure appears to have been invented out of thin air. McGillicuddy notes a couple of places that attribute it to the US Census Bureau or some church source, but those are vague attributions that appear to be false.

Where McGillicuddy goes too far is essentially arguing that this is some sort of false flag put forth by Christians to rally their base. Rather, I suspect this is the sort of statistics that grows and spreads organically because it fits so well within other overarching stories that the media loves to tell about America. It fits in nicely with the thesis put forth by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone that traditional centers of American community are collapsing. The claim of Putnams’ 2000 book has only been amplified with the rise of the Internet in the intervening couple decades.

That’s the sort of narrative that the media love.

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