By Jane Lampman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
While Census 2000 is updating views of the American landscape, there's one
scene it can't describe - religion. Another group of researchers, however,
has been busy over the past five years on the most sweeping survey of US
congregational life ever completed.
Among the findings: More than half of congregations are growing, those in the
West more rapidly even than those in the South, and so-called world religions
(Latter-Day Saints, Muslims, and Baha'is) are the fastest growing of all
At the same time, half of US congregations have fewer than 100 participating
adult members, and a quarter have less than 50. Some 52 percent are located
in small towns and rural areas.
While megachurches have received much attention in recent years and have
contributed to the rapid church growth in newer suburbs, congregations of more
than 1,000 members represent less than 10 percent of the total.
"Many people are surprised by the pervasiveness of small congregations," says
David Roozen, a co-director of the survey from Hartford Institute for Religion
Research (HIRR) at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "But there is also a
surprising level of vitality in the majority of both small and large churches."
"Faith Communities Today" - the report released last week on more than
14,000 congregations in 41 denominations - is an interfaith collaboration of
researchers from 26 faith groups, headed by HIRR and supported by the Lilly
Endowment. All US faith groups were invited to participate, but some - such
as Hindus, Buddhists, and Jehovah's Witnesses - chose not to take part. The
project represents 90 percent of American worshippers.
The groups conducted the survey within their own denominations, using a common
questionnaire, with some additional questions pertinent to their group.
"This allows us to develop a profile of our own congregations and compare it
with other denominations," says Craig This, director of research for the
United Methodist Church. "We can look for commonalities in problems we are
struggling with and in experiments with types of worship, and for ways we can
cooperate in social outreach."
The survey revealed that growth and vitality appear most closely related to
the use of contemporary forms of worship and to social outreach activities,
as well as a clear sense of purpose and strong moral standards.
Many of the healthiest churches offer styles that appeal to younger people,
like use of electric keyboards and guitars. "We really see for the first
time a broad adaptation" of contemporary forms within congregations, Dr.
Roozen says. "It is part of a more expressive, experiential, and relational
style of worship, as opposed to a doctrinal lecture."
But many congregations that have changed their worship, the report showed,
have also had to pay the price of conflict among members. A challenge for
religious leadership is to learn to deal effectively with change and conflict.
Fully 85 percent of congregations offer some form of community service,
making such ministries more common than prayer groups, choirs, and theological
study. And contrary to previous reports that connected social outreach to
declining memberships, the study says that "congregations with a strong
commitment to social justice and direct participation in community outreach
ministries are more likely to be growing than other congregations."
Outreach programs most frequently provide crisis services such as cash
assistance, food, and thrift shops. About half offer hotline or counseling
services, and a third offer tutoring and substance-abuse programs. While
these efforts are making major contributions to community welfare, the report
says, many lack the infrastructure to provide social services on more than an
Among other findings:
* Worship services remain racially segregated, but "Sunday morning is neither
more (nor less) segregated than Saturday night." Houses of worship simply
mirror the demographic composition of their zip codes.
* More than half of Latino and black congregations place high value on using
their religious communities to preserve ethnic or racial heritage.
* Contrary to reports of a breakdown in denominational loyalty, nearly
two-thirds of congregations maintain strong ties to their denominations.
* Larger congregations have a greater proportion of young adults and of male
* Evangelical Protestants account for the largest portion of new
congregations; Roman Catholics have the largest congregations (averaging more
than 2,000 members).
* Promotional campaigns energize members, but are not particularly effective
in attracting new people.
* About one-third of congregations have plateaued, and about 19 percent have
This study can help denominations help churches that are struggling, Mr. This
says. "Many [United Methodist] churches that are plateauing or declining
still have a clear presence in their community," he says. "How do you help
them maintain that presence in a cost-and staff-efficient way?"
While small churches can be fragile, Roozen says, small doesn't have to mean
dwindling. "Think of them like small businesses," he adds. "Tons of
congregations in the Northeast and Midwest have never been bigger than 100
members, and have an incredible resilience."
©Copyright 2001, The Christian Science Monitor
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