Bahai News - PROFILES of FAITH
LIVING - WEDNESDAY - March 14, 2001
PROFILES of FAITH
Picture emerges of religion in America in megastudy of 14,000
Wednesday, March 14, 2001
Strict churches are financially healthy, world religions are outpacing many
Christian groups in growth and congregations that use electric guitars are
likely to attract new members.
Those are among the findings of Faith Communities Today, the largest survey
of American religious congregations ever conducted.
The study, released Tuesday in Connecticut by the Hartford Institute for
Religious Research, covers more than 14,000 congregations in 41 faiths and
denominations, and deals with topics from clergy age to worship style.
"This really afforded us the opportunity to sit down and take a look at
ourselves and who we are," said Craig This, director of research for the 8.5
million-member United Methodist Church. "And the opportunity to compare
ourselves with other denominations and faith groups is a great benefit ---
not so much in the sense of competition, but it helps some of our pastors to
see they're not alone in their endeavors."
The survey showed that although much attention is given to so-called
megachurches, with thousands of members, half the congregations in the
country have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults, most are in small
towns or rural areas and a majority were organized before 1945.
In fact, some of today's large churches were older, small-town churches that
--- with the right circumstances and leadership --- were catapulted by
suburban growth into megachurch status, said Scott Thumma, a Hartford
researcher who surveyed large congregations for the study. Major Southern
Baptist churches in some Atlanta suburbs such as Snellville are examples.
Although the stereotypical megachurch is conservative Protestant, the Hartford
survey showed that, on average, Catholic churches are larger than any other
group, regardless of geographic setting.
Newer churches --- those organized since 1990 --- are likely to be evangelical
Protestant. But the second-largest group of new congregations --- representing
more than 20 percent --- are "world religions," including Baha'i, Judaism,
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Islam. "This trend
is rapidly putting a new face on American religion," says the report.
The Hartford study, funded by the Lilly Endowment, grew out of a discussion
at a 1995 meeting of researchers. For the most part, groups surveyed their own
congregations, working from a core questionnaire. The Interdenominational
Theological Center in Atlanta supervised the study among predominantly
African-American denominations, and the Alpharetta-based North American
Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention collected data in the
country's largest Protestant group. Hartford professors David Roozen and Carl
Dudley compiled the results of 26 separate research organizations, weighing
them so that they would reflect the makeup of the religious population as a
Some participating groups have begun examining their data in addition to the
larger study. From a representative sample of 710 Southern Baptist churches,
for example, North American Mission Board officials have learned that one in
12 Southern Baptist churches conducts two or more Sunday morning services and
three-fourths hold Sunday evening worship. More than 90 percent of the
congregations surveyed said their members consider it important to be
affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and the typical church gives
at least 10 percent of its income to denominational missions.
Overall, the Hartford study found that most congregations consider themselves
vital and healthy, and half are growing in membership.
Among points of concern: an aging clergy --- especially among Roman Catholics,
Orthodox and predominantly African-Amercian denominations. Clergy in these
faiths have an average age in the mid-50s.
An overview of the study's findings has been published in a 68-page report.
The data are also available in a "workbook" online through the Web site of
the Hartford Institute, allowing comparison between specific groups, regions
of the country or sizes of congregations.
The electronic version "will accommodate the diverse needs of literally
thousands of congregations, denominational leaders, seminary faculty,
consultants . . . and others who will use this research," said Dudley.
In preparatory meetings, Muslims and Jews, Baptists and Mormons, liberal
Protestants and Pentecostals worked together, said researcher Thumma. "They
got into major discussions of theology: What does worship mean? What does it
mean to be a spiritually vital congregation?" he said. "It was one of the
most amazing religious events I've ever participated in."
Although the American religious landscape is becoming increasingly diverse,
individual worshippers are very likely to be in congregations made up mostly
of members of their own race or ethnic group. More than three in four
congregations report that most or all of their regularly attending adult
worshippers are white --- a circumstance that reflects the population of the
ZIP code areas in which they are located. Therefore, according to the survey,
the adage that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week is not
necessarily true. "Sunday morning is neither more (nor less) segregated than
Saturday night," the report says.
But there are differences, even among largely white Protestant groups: The
larger the congregation, the greater the percentage of young adults and the
greater percentage of male worshippers it is likely to have, regardless of
denomination. Liberal Protestant congregations generally have a higher
percentage of college graduates than other groups. Evangelical Protestant
churches tend to have more young adults and families with young children.
Strong public stands on morality by a congregation are usually linked to
financial soundness and growth, the study shows. A commitment to social
ministry also seems to correlate with congregational vitality.
But if a church really wants to draw new members and fill its offering plates,
it needs two things: an electric guitar and an electronic keyboard --- and
maybe a set of drums. Says the report: "Changes in worship patterns,
especially in using new instruments... have a strong, positive association
with congregational vitality, member growth, financial stability and other
signs of a healthy congregation."
> ON THE WEB: Faith Communities Today report: fact.hartsem.edu
Graph shows percentage of congregation Before 1945, 1945-65, 1966-90,
Historically black Protestant
Catholic and Orthodox
Baha'i, Judaism, Mormon, Islam
Source: Faith Communities Today
/ Jerome Thompson / Staff
(Graphs show results from a study of congregations in America)
More than half of congregations are in towns of rural settings:
25%....Cities 100,000 +
52%....Town or rural settings
Half of congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating
50%.....fewer than 100
More than half of congregations were founded before 1945:
Source: Faith Communities Today
Jerome Thompson / Staff
©Copyright 2001, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Page last updated/revised 031401
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