SPRING GREEN, Wis. (RNS) — The Rev. Derek Miller has seen the future of the church in America.
And it is small.
On a Sunday morning in early November, Miller, guitar in hand, stepped up to the microphone at Cornerstone Church of Spring Green and began singing the familiar Charles Wesley hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
A handful of people scattered in the sanctuary sang along, including a church elder in the front row next to a pair of young kids tapping on tambourines. By the time all the latecomers had arrived, there were 12 people in the congregation.
Things used to be different. Five years ago, when the church was at its height, as many as 100 people would show up for Sunday service. But the 2020 election, the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd and COVID-19 have taken their toll. On a good day, if everyone shows up, there might be 30 people.
Services are often a one-man show. On this Sunday, Miller led the singing, preached the sermon and even handled the video for the livestream of the service, moving the camera closer to the pulpit and greeting people online before preaching. And he wrote the song the congregation sang during Communion.
“Running over, I’m grateful for your sacrifice,” he sang in a cheerful baritone. “Running over, pour your blessings through my life.”
Cornerstone is part of the fastest-growing group of congregations in America: the minichurch. According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100.
That’s a marked change from two decades earlier, when the 2000 Faith Communities Today survey found the median congregation had 137 people and fewer than half of congregations had fewer than 100 people.
“Shrinking attendance figures coupled with an increase in the number and percent of small congregations obviously indicates that a good many congregations are not growing,” the study’s authors found. “Indeed, the median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%,” meaning half of all congregations declined in attendance by at least 7%.
While most congregations are small, however, most worshippers attend a larger congregation. Another prominent report, the National Congregations Study, found that while the average congregation is small — about 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.
The report reflects the reality that religious Americans are being sorted into two kinds of churches — megachurches, and minichurches like Cornerstone.