The West or the Rest

 

FACTs on the Oldline
data from the Fact2000 study

The West or the Rest
by David A. Roozen 

The demographic face of American congregations is changing, and most of us are generally aware that this face is becoming older, multi-colored and less oldline Protestant.  Less noticed, especially to those of us living east of the Mississippi, is the dramatic shift since 1945 in the geographic locus of new congregations.  It has been, to use a familiar phrase, “Westward Ho!” 

We see this in the steady increase in the blue (Western) column in Figure 1 below as we move across the decades.  The figure presents the findings of the recent Faith Communities Today (FACT) study on the regional distribution of congregations founded during different historical periods.  The four regions are the standard, major census divisions, in which the “West” includes both the mountain and coastal states. Figure 1

Most definitely, the figure shows that in the decade of 1990-2000 the West became the dominant location of new congregations, replacing the historical dominance of the South.

If you are like me, then you also carry the impression that Western congregations are somehow different.  After the FACT survey, I stand corrected. When we consider congregations across the 41 denominations and faith groups that were involved in the research, the data show surprisingly little distinctiveness in the profile of Western congregations.  

For example, on average Western congregations are no different than the congregations in one or more of the other major census regions in regard to members’ educational level, age of members, commuting distance or life-long identification with a particular denomination. Also very similar are the congregations’ emphasis on contemporary worship (as measured through the use of electronic instruments), denominational connection, membership size, financial size and optimism about the future. FACT discovered that Western congregations have only a very slight edge in regard to having married members with children in the home, self-assessed vitality, and an openness to change. 

The lack of Western distinctiveness may be particularly surprising to oldline Protestants because their churches, in contrast to Western congregations of all Christian bodies, are very different from churches in other regions. Figure 2 provides a few key examples. Notice, for example, that 20 percent of oldline Protestant congregations in the West always or frequently use guitars in worship, compared with only 8 percent of oldline Protestant congregations in the rest of the country. 

For denominations and faith groups other than oldline Protestants, there is no significant difference between the West and the rest of the country. Indicative of the positive relationship between congregational vitality and contemporary worship, we find the same general pattern for oldline/other, and West/rest concerning financial health, membership growth, and a congregation’s self-assessed vitality. 

The distinctive West/rest difference, shown in Figure 2, in regard to lifelong participation in a denomination suggests that the expression of denominational heritage and the use of denominational resources would follow the same pattern. But the FACT survey shows no such similarity. Indeed, to the extent that oldline Protestantism is known for social ministries, Western oldline congregations are more likely to rank higher than oldline congregations in the rest of the country.

Figure 2

Overall, the FACT findings (including Figure 2) demonstrate that oldline congregations in the West are better connected and adapted to their social contests than oldline congregations in the rest of the country—and, perhaps relatedly, more vital.

Professor Roozen is the director of Hartford Institute for Religion Research and co-director of the Faith Communities Today project.