A Report on Religion in the United States Today--Executive Summary

Faith Communities in the United States Today reports on the largest survey of congregations ever conducted in the United States. It also is the most inclusive, denominationally sanctioned program of interfaith cooperation.

The Faith Communities Today data brings together 26 individual surveys of congregations representing 41 denominations and faith groups. Project participants developed a common core questionnaire. Faith groups then conducted their own surveys of a sample of congregations. More than 14,000 congregations participated in the survey. Usually, the congregation’s leader completed the questionnaire.

Although all denominations and faith groups in the United States had the opportunity to participate in the project, not all of them did. The 41 participating denominations and faith groups include about 90 percent of worshippers in the United States. These denominations and faith groups worked together, in interfaith cooperation, to undertake this survey. Their coming together for this purpose is unprecedented.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR) at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut, initiated the Faith Communities Today project. Co-directors of the project are Carl S. Dudley, Professor of Church and Community at Hartford Seminary, and David A. Roozen, director of HIRR and Professor of Religion and Society at Hartford Seminary. Funding was provided by the Lilly Endowment Inc. and the faith groups.

The survey found it reassuring that:

  • The great majority of faith communities are vital and alive.
  • Half the faith communities see themselves as growing in numbers, especially those using or blending contemporary forms of worship and those located in newer suburbs.
  • The faith communities in the United States are making major contributions to the welfare of their communities through a combination of social and spiritual ministries.

At the same time, the survey found it disturbing that:

  • Many congregations have a commitment to undertake social welfare programs – and the space – but lack the infrastructure
  • Congregations, to remain vital, must change but that change can prove costly – leading to conflict that negatively impacts member growth, new volunteers and financial support.
  • Congregations that enact their faith without explicit expectations for members experience less vitality and more conflict.

Demographics

When the public thinks of churches, the image that comes to mind is a mega-church or a high-steeple urban church. The reality, however, is that half of the congregations in the United States have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults and just over half are located in small town and rural settings. Indeed, a full quarter of congregations has fewer than 50 regularly participating adults, while less than 10 percent have more than 1,000.

Religion and community was inseparable for the waves of immigrants that founded and then populated the United States. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of United States congregations pre-date World War II. Also not surprising was the burst of new church development in the immediate post-war period, a period that combined economic expansion and the need for community-providing institutions in the rapidly developing suburbs.

Perhaps less obvious is the dramatic shift over time in the geographic locus of new congregations. Congregational development in the West surpassed even the South in the last decade. This trend is something religious establishments, whose mindsets have yet to make the Westward shift, should note.

Clarity of purpose

Congregations with a clear sense of purpose feel vital and alive. In contrast to feelings of unity based on heritage (the past), this center of cohesion looks to the future. This positive assessment extends across the spectrum of denominational groups.

Vital, purposeful congregations also have a more positive assessment about their future. Such optimism occurs most often in Historic Black churches, and significantly less often in Moderate Protestant congregations. Not surprisingly, the confidence of congregations in their future is closely tied to their ability to attract and mobilize the energies of their youth. The ability to attract teenagers and youth contributes to membership growth.

Purpose-driven vitality also can be measured by the quality and quantity of financial support that members give a congregation. Size makes a significant difference here. New churches, especially when they are small, report a precarious financial situation, while older, larger congregations, especially in suburbs, feel their financial health is stronger.

Growth

Fifty percent of congregations report that they are growing and that they welcome change, which contributes to growth.

The survey found that they grow by:

  • Cultural affinity -- finding "our kind of people"
  • Community involvement, keeping in touch
  • Organizational focus, vision in action
  • Offering both care and moral standards for members
  • Finding inspiration in worship
  • Promotional programs, which by themselves may not produce growth but strengthen congregational vitality

Contrary to some widely quoted scholars, congregations with a strong commitment to social justice and with direct participation in community outreach ministries are more likely to be growing than other congregations.

Location makes a major difference as well. Congregations in suburbs are more likely to be growing, while those in rural areas are apt to be losing members, regardless of their openness to change or willingness to accept new members.

Change and conflict

The impact of change to contemporary worship is clear throughout this report. Changes in worship patterns, especially in using new instruments (electronic guitar and electronic keyboard, for example) have a strong, positive association with congregational vitality, member growth, financial stability and other signs of a healthy congregation. Although we cannot tell if these particular symbols of change will be a passing fad or enduring aspect of worship, they point to a dynamic of change to which some congregations are responding.

Changes in congregational worship, like growth, are associated with size and location, apparently as congregations respond to changing community and cultural conditions.

Where populations make it possible, change for many congregations also means an effort to increase their racial/ethnic diversity. Congregations most committed to increasing diversity are in the centers of metropolitan areas, while faith communities least committed to increasing their racial-ethnic diversity are located in rural areas, villages and towns, where the opportunities are fewer.

But change does not come without the emotional cost of conflict. The tensions around change are compounded when congregations are faced with dwindling financial resources. Congregations report an increase in conflict as their resources become more limited.

Conflicts around worship are more likely to occur in center city congregations, where social diversity is higher and finances are less available. Conflicts also are more evident in congregations located in new suburban areas, where the funding may not be as limited (depending on congregational size and age) but the pressures to reach contemporary culture are even stronger.

Worship

Among the different worship emphases and approaches, the vast majority of participating congregations reports a common emphasis on "God’s love and care" and on relating this to "practical advice for daily life." Although the ritual, leadership, content, energy and participation is vastly different among these groups, the great majority feel that their worship is spiritually uplifting and nurtures their spiritual growth.

The introduction of new musical instruments marked one aspect of change in congregations organized since 1945. More than merely new styles of musical presentation, these new musical styles are accompanied by a profound shift in the location of religious authority. The authority of scripture remains high for all groups. 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. In contrast, congregations that put a priority on denominational heritage place the highest authority in historic creeds, doctrines and tradition. The immediacy of the Holy Spirit seems parallel to contemporary worship practices such as use of electronic instruments.

Outreach

Congregational outreach programs provide a national, personal network of human services extending to virtually every community. More than two out of three congregations reports sponsoring or supporting a thrift shop, for example, and more than one out of three are involved in tutoring. Their response would suggest more than 200,000 congregations supporting thrift shops and more than 120,000 congregations helping to tutor children and youth nationwide. Even if we modify these projections by assuming that about a third of these congregations combine with others to provide shared services, the contribution to the welfare of communities is far greater than many other estimates suggest

Because of the importance given to this commitment to community, we may infer that, for many participants, community outreach is as much an expression of faith as participation in prayer groups, liturgical practice or doctrinal study. Congregations working for social justice and with a broad array of outreach ministries are more likely to express vitality.

Space

Congregations feeling the greatest pressure for additional space are located in the growing suburbs. The most crowed facilities are directly associated with membership growth.

Many congregations outside the suburbs report more space than they need. Fortunately, many of the congregations with additional or unused room are located in communities of greatest need for human services in rural and central city settings. They are uniquely situated to respond with space and facilities to provide faith-based social ministries to strengthen their communities, where no other such buildings are available.

Finances

Denominational loyalty, focused organization and high moral standards are strongly associated with financial health.

Leadership

While the majority of congregations are vital and alive, some report that they have lost the energy that comes with clear vision. Age of congregation is one factor that places a drag on a congregation’s sense of energy and purpose. Leaders in such congregations face the challenge to recover a fresh sense of mission and purpose, to help the congregation "to dream again."

Seminary education

Education for religious leaders provides a unique challenge. Higher education, and particularly seminary Master’s and post-Master’s education, seems to have a noticeable effect on the style of sermon presentation. The references such pastors use in their sermon are more likely to be drawn from literature and news events. At the same time, seminary graduates are more likely to engage in ecumenical worship and community social ministries.

However, broad educational experience in the congregation, and perhaps even seminary education, seems to have a negative impact on many basic religious values. Churches served by seminary graduates are less likely to maintain traditional religious-moral values and also are less likely to be committed to preserving denominational heritage.

Further, clergy with a seminary education are no more likely than other clergy to be in congregations that have a strong social justice orientation and are very much less likely to be in congregations that deal openly with conflict and disagreement.

Additional information

For copies of this report, please contact the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at 860-509-9542 or [email protected]. The full report is also available on this site in an Adobe pdf format at Full Research Report.