Celebrating 24 Years of Multifaith Research
by Scott Thumma
[This reflection is written by Scott Thumma, Co-Chair of the Steering Committee, 23 year participant in the organization, professor at Hartford International University (the sponsoring school), and director of Hartford Institute for Religion Research.]
This month marks the twenty-fourth year that the Faith Communities Today research project has existed. Its official name is the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, and indeed it lives up to that name. We often describe the group as a multifaith research coalition conducting surveys and creating practical reports on congregations and congregational life in the U.S. But, what does that actually look like? In this slightly different newsletter post, we wanted to give our readers a glimpse inside the group that creates and sustains this different type of research organization and agenda.
My first memory of our coalition was one of the high points of my life, if that isn’t being too dramatic. Imagine being in a large meeting room around concentric tables on the 12th floor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s headquarters in Chicago with 55 or more representatives of 40 different religious groups and denominations from Catholic, Orthodox, Southern Baptist, Nazarene, United Methodist and Episcopalian to Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish, Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventist and Assemblies of God, as well as many others (see the full list of current and former participants elsewhere in the newsletter).
Researchers from these groups were there to collaborate on the first ever joint research project to collectively survey over 14,000 of their faith communities using a common questionnaire. These representatives, who have over the years become great friends and colleagues, were then still getting to know and trust each other. At the same time, they were engaged in spirited debates about what worship meant in their traditions and how to best measure it. They fought over the necessary questions to ask of every congregation to capture its distinctive vitality and mission, while also creating a joint survey of faith communities. Every word in a question was debated – you would have thought these researchers were theologians but in fact they were trying to be true to their understanding of their traditions and what made the American religious landscape so eclectic and vibrant.
Witnessing a Southern Baptist and a Baha’i researcher debating their very different models of congregating, or Jewish and Muslim representatives having their first ever conversation about their communities and realizing they had much in common was truly transformative for a social scientist who mostly studied Protestant Christian churches. We sometimes forget that no survey question fits every congregation or tradition. Likewise, a handful of responses from a “nationally representative sample” of churches seldom portrays the richness of any one of these complex traditions. This is why the Faith Communities Today survey partners collaboratively design the survey we use and also send it out to hundreds of their congregations before adding their voices to the aggregated dataset that becomes our national reports.
Truly, the Faith Communities Today survey is a cooperative partnership of diverse faith groups who strive to present an accurate picture of not just their tradition’s faith communities but also jointly a representative picture of the rich diversity of the American religious landscape. If your faith tradition isn’t a part of this faithful collective, encourage it to join us in our 2020 research effort. Together we create a more beautiful and vibrant portrait of faith communities in the United States, as captured in the following quotes by three of our longtime partners:
I have been with this project for 20 years, coming in just as the group was gathering data for the 2000 survey. It has always been fascinating to me, as a sociologist of religion, to see how each faith group grapples with the issues common to all faith groups — passing on the faith, community vitality, leadership, stewardship, relevancy, and so on. Struggling together to find common language for survey questions that will work across most, if not all, faith groups has been a joy. Through each wave of the survey we rediscover that the things we share in common can bridge any doctrinal or denominational differences that separate us.-Mary Gautier, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University
FACT has been one of the great personal and professional experiences of my life. I have made numerous important friendships across many faith traditions. But I have also learned a great deal from all the professional researchers who work in academia, faith tradition research offices, and nonprofit organizations. I am a better researcher and data analyst as a result of working with them.-Mike McMullen, Lead Researcher for the Bahá’í Faith
People often use terms like “first ever” or “only one of its kind” as embellishment. This isn’t the case with FACT. It continues to be the only place where nearly every American religious community gathers as equals to collect, disseminate, and share data from their respective communities. The synagogue community functioned in a parochial vacuum from churches, mosques, and temples until FACT enabled it to see itself in comparison to the rest of the religious landscape. My community knows the results of FACT with most synagogue leaders not knowing of its existence by our inclusion in the press and discussions of American religion.-Aaron Spiegel, Synagogue Studies Institute