Painting a Portrait of American Religion Congregational Studies as a Vehicle for Interfaith Cooperation

From PRAXIS - a quarterly magazine of Hartford Seminary
June 1998, Vol. X No. 1

  • Imagine, if you will, a large hotel conference table encircled by high ranking representatives of a more broadly interfaith coalition of religious bodies than you have ever experienced before: Assemblies of God, Baha'i, Muslim, Southern Baptist, Jewish, Mormon, the nine major historic black denominations, Christian Orthodox, independent mega churches, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, Church of Christ, Church of the Nazarene and 15 or so old line Protestant denominations.
  • And imagine that the conference room walls are lined with newsprint, each piece the attempt of a particular religious body to map out its image of a faithful and effective congregation.
  • And imagine the conversation as participants both affirm and puzzle over their commonality and their difference.
  • And imagine that you are Hartford Seminary's Carl Dudley and David Roozen trying to keep the diverse group civilly engaged and constructively on task.

Such are the reality, the wonder and the challenge of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Project (CCSP) a merging of congregational studies and interfaith for cooperation that few institutions other than Hartford Seminary ever would have imagined.

This April, after two years of planning meetings large and small versions of that described above and literally hundreds of phone calls, letters, memos, faxes and e mail messages, the Seminary's Center for Social and Research Religious Research received a $760,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, to be matched by more than $800,000 in in kind contributions from participating denominations and religious groups.up

According to Dudley and Roozen, the Center's co directors, the project grant will coordinate this interfaith coalition's realization of two primary goals: To complete a genuinely cooperative interfaith research project unparalleled in the breadth of participating religious groups and the number of participating congregations specifically, a cooperative national survey of congregations in the year 2000; and To develop and implement plans for utilizing the survey research results in ways that will be appropriate within each participating group to strengthen congregations and the structures that support them.

The estimated 350,000 congregations in the United States represent a unique set of voluntary organizations that have had and continue to have a pervasive influence on their members and the life of the communities of which they are a part. Despite available research technology and an increasing interest in congregational life, existing studies of congregations are extremely limited in their "denominational" orientation and substantive focus.

To fill in the gaps of information and appreciation, the widely inclusive, national, multi faith study of congregations envisioned by the CCSP will provide the first comprehensive portrait of congregations in the United States. Additionally, for several participating groups the effort will provide the first ever statistical profile of their congregations and their first, disciplined use of congregational studies. In uniquely American voluntary style, the CCSP has assembled an interfaith coalition of research and educational leaders who are committed to developing common procedures, shared data gathering and analysis, and cooperative utilization of information.

Although individually limited in experience and resources, the cooperative approach permits the broadening of the base of ownership, expertise and financial support, thus reducing the overhead costs while expanding exponentially both the impact and the scope of the interfaith sharing.

The research component of the CCSP, coordinated by Roozen, will consist of a key informant, national survey of congregations. Each participating denomination or group will survey a random sample of approximately 500 of its own congregations, resulting in a total aggregated database of between 15,000 and 20,000 congregations. The surveys will use a commonly developed core set of closed ended questions, supplemented by additional questions at a denomination or group's discretion. up

The core questionnaire focuses on seven aspects of congregational life. Using the common language developed by participants, these include:

  • The spiritual, organizational and statistical vitality of congregations;
  • The variety and style of worship the foundational act of religious gathering;
  • The variety of congregational activities and programs which nurture faith and provide opportunities for the expression of faith;
  • Levels of participation and the characteristics of participants;
  • Strategies congregations use to reach new members and raise financial resources;
  • Characteristics of clergy and lay leadership;
  • How congregations relate to other congregations, to denominational structures and to other institutions in their communities such as schools, homes and hospitals; and
  • The widely different ways that congregations support and strengthen the social and material well being of their communities.

To most effectively utilize the survey results, the CCSP is developing an integrated dissemination strategy, coordinated by Dudley, to reach three broad target groups:
1. the congregational and denominational leaders of participating religious bodies;
2. the news media and the general public it serves; and
3. academic and research communities interested in religious research.

To reach the first and primary target denomination/group will identify a key teacher who will develop and implement a plan, in consultation with key teachers from other participating groups, to help congregations and their supporting religious structures to use the research in way appropriate to that religious group.

To reach the other target audiences, Dudley and Roozen will personally write or supervise the preparation of a variety of project related publications.up

Currently, seven kinds of "publications" are envisioned:

  • A Project Report a user friendly, 50 page report on congregations as religious institutions for the secular and religious press, and for wide distribution throughout the public and participating groups;
  • Workbooks on Congregational Issues: teaching, consulting and self study materials, grounded in the survey data, for use in congregations and among the leaders of participating denominations/groups to better understand and strengthen particular areas of congregational life, such as fund raising, leadership development, member recruitment, volunteer training, and ministry development.
  • Press releases in 2001 2002: A two year, monthly series of press releases, coordinated with the release of U.S. census data and with the holy days and special events of the various CCSP faith traditions, designed to maintain public consciousness following the initial information release in the fall of 2000.
  • Articles for academic meetings and journals in a variety of disciplines, prepared as a conscious strategy to show the relevance of congregational research in such areas as sociology of religion, social work, organizational theory, nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, urban or rural studies, theology, history of religious institutions, "church" administration/leadership, theological education, etc.
  • A basic book for popular and academic audiences on the Characteristics of Religious Congregations in the U.S.
  • A more applied book on U.S. Congregational Programs and Practices, written primarily for congregations and religious leaders, and geared to the above noted workbooks on congregational issues.
  • Electronic access to all published information, including this project web site locating the congregational survey data set in a major and publicly accessible data archive.