Bahai News - Study Finds Surprises In The Elusive Big Picture Of Organized Religion

Study Finds Surprises In The Elusive Big Picture Of Organized Religion

Story type: COLUMN

Religion in America, despite thousands of sanctuaries and millions of participants and billions of donation dollars, is often invisible to the public world.

It doesn't show up on the U.S. Census. It barely registers in prime-time TV, movies or serious novels. A Christian megastar singer can sip his latte at Borders in Nashville and be totally unrecognized.

The faith world is a patchwork of fierce subcultures, generating their own private vocabularies and retail markets, but largely unknown or untranslated outside each enclave.

A huge new study takes a broad look at American worship life and organized religion. It's considered an unprecedented attempt to see the big picture.

`Faith Communities Today: A Report on Religion in the United States Today` took five years to finish, a study of 14,300 houses of worship and 41 faith groups -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others -- conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It aims to be an accurate reflection of worship life in the approximately 300,000 congregations scattered across America.

Some findings might surprise:

Half of America's congregations have fewer than 100 regular adult worshippers; 52% of American congregations are in small town and rural settings.

New congregations organized since 1990 are most likely evangelical Protestant. But the second- largest group of new congregations is made up of `world faiths` -- Islam, Baha'i, Judaism, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Average clergy age is mid-50s among black Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

The 68-page report notes a revolution in worship style -- the introduction of electric guitar and keyboard after 1945 -- that reflects a profound shift in attitude about religious authority. This is happening especially in new churches in new suburbs, often with a Pentecostal or `nondenominational` flavor.

`The authority of Scripture remains high for all groups,` the report says. `But among the congregations that use electronic instruments, there also is a radical increase in the authority of the Holy Spirit, and a dramatic decrease in the emphasis on creeds and human reason.`

Congregations that put a value on denominational identity also care more about historic creeds and doctrines, the report says.

Old traditions are in tension with new worship expression, the report says. Worship styles dramatically reflect the decade when the congregation was organized. Before 1945, candles and incense were popular in a large number of churches. Today, it's electric guitar and percussion.

The conflict issue is prominent in the report. Congregations find they must make changes to remain vital. Growth in new members creates change. So do new worship songs and instruments. But change invites conflict, too.

`A lot of congregations see conflict as a doorway into the future, something to deal with and sort out -- it's how you grow, a way of moving forward,` said Carl Dudley, a researcher on the project.

`The challenge is to train leaders to deal with conflict.`

Larger congregations are more likely than others to welcome change, the report says, especially if they are evangelical and located in growing suburban areas or Western states. Congregations of seminary-educated leaders, in particular, are unready to address issues of change.

Conflicts aside, the report found that congregations in the United States `are making major contributions to the welfare of their communities through a combination of social and spiritual ministries.`

Some findings contradict the notion that organized religion is in bad health:

50% of congregations reported that they are growing, and 85% reported a strong sense of clarity of purpose and vitality. That can be measured by financial support of members, volunteerism, social ministries, connection to neighborhood, and pride in religious heritage.

Feelings of vitality occur most frequently in traditional black congregations and significantly less often in liberal Protestant congregations, the report says. Older, smaller and rural churches are less likely to claim a sense of purpose.

For more information about this rarely measured slice of spiritual life, see

©Copyright 2001, The Tennessean

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