data from the Fact2000 study
When the public thinks of congregations, the image that typically comes to mind is a megachurch 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 (RPA).
Indeed, a full quarter of congregations has fewer than 50 regularly participating adults, while less than 10 percent have more than 1,000.
Just over half of the congregations
are located in small town and rural settings.
The number of participants varies considerably by location and also by denominational group. The large size of Roman Catholic parishes is especially dramatic.
The smaller size of rural and small town congregations – contrasted with the larger size of those located in newer suburbs — is consistent across denominations and faith groups.
Moderate Protestant congregations generally are smaller, which is consistent with the fact that these congregations are heavily concentrated in town and rural settings.
Evangelical Protestant churches also are concentrated in town and rural settings. However, in contrast to other Protestant groups, Evangelical Protestants have a significant and growing presence in the suburbs.
But it is Jewish, Bahá’is and Mormon congregations that are most concentrated in the suburbs with more than 40 percent of the congregations of each group having a suburban setting.
Religion and community were 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 is a 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.
The downturn in new church development in mainline Protestantism and surge in Evangelical Protestantism is familiar to most religious trend trackers. But they also should note the downturn among the Roman Catholic/Orthodox and the surge in the founding of congregations among Bahá’is, Muslims and Mormons over the last 20 years. This trend is rapidly putting a new face on American religion.
A common adage connecting congregational life to the legacy of racism in the United States observes that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week.
At first glance the racial profile of congregations seems to reinforce this myth. Seventy-six percent of congregations report that most or all of their regularly participating adults are white. Overlaying census data onto the FACT survey, however, yields a significant, although not overly encouraging, correction: Sunday morning is neither more (nor less) segregated than Saturday night. Specifically, congregations’ participants represent a mirror image of the racial composition of the zip codes in which their congregations are located. Specifically, 75 percent of congregational zip codes are most or all white.
That congregational participants reflect the demographic characteristics of their congregation’s location is consistent with the traditional development of geographic parishes. Not surprisingly, the survey found that parishioners generally have a short commute to worship – one that is considerably less than a typical commute to work.
Congregational participants are more likely to be female and older than the general population. The fact that congregational participants are more likely to be married and to be in households with children than the general population offers support for those who have noted the close connection between organized religious involvement and traditional notions of family.
The survey also shows that:
- Participants in FACT congregations are more likely to be college graduates than the general population.
- But they also are slightly more likely than the general population to be in households with annual incomes less than $20,000.
- Among congregations organized since 1990, there is a higher proportion of participants who commute more than 15 minutes to worship. Religious community is increasingly less equal to residential community.
- Size of congregation matters when it comes to gender – the larger the congregation, the more males it has. This differential is found for both Protestants and Catholics.
- Similarly, the larger the congregation, the greater the proportion of young adult participants, again for both Protestants and Catholics.
- Slightly more than 25 percent of congregations report that a majority of their regularly participating adults are lifelong members of the congregation’s denomination.
The effect of location is especially dramatic in regard to lifelong denominational members.
The proportion of participants who are lifelong denominational members decreases steadily as one moves from rural to town to city to new suburban locations.
The pattern of progressive differences in participant profiles as one moves from rural to new suburban locations is also stark for educational levels, age, child-present families, and household income.
Other notable differences in participant characteristics among denominational groups include:
- Liberal Protestant congregations tend to have higher proportions of college graduates.
- Evangelical Protestant congregations tend to have more young adults and families with children.
- Congregations in the Historically Black denominations tend to have more participants from low-income households.
- Congregations in the Roman Catholic/Orthodox group tend to have fewer long commuters.
Each denomination or faith group drew its own sample of congregations — minimally intended to provide an error rate of plus or minus four percentage points. Return rates were very good, averaging just over 50 percent. In total, the 26 individual surveys included answers from 14,301 congregations.
For purposes of overall national analysis, we combined the 26 FACT sub-surveys in such a way that, through the use of statistical weights, each denomination or faith group’s congregations are represented in the FACT weighted data proportionate to their representation in the total population of FACT participant congregations in the United States.
Not all of the 26 surveys used to compile this report asked all of the questions in the common core questionnaire.
Roman Catholic: Welcoming change, preserving racial/ethnic/national heritage, change in worship, sermon emphases, components of worship (except music), sources of religious authority; emphasis on sexual abstinence, personal witness evangelism, and ministerial education of congregation’s leader.
Historically Black Denominations: Serving as moral beacon to community, welcoming change, openness in dealing with conflict, preserving racial/ethnic/national heritage, clarity of purpose, change in worship, sermon emphases, components of worship (including music); rural to suburban location, condition of building, home practices and emphases, approaches to evangelism, working with other congregations, and growth.
Muslim: Expressing denominational heritage, serving as moral beacon to community, openness in dealing with conflict, change in worship, sermon emphases, components of worship (including music); rural to suburban location, condition of building, approaches to evangelism, and ministerial education of congregation’s leader.
Bahá’is: Expressing denominational heritage, change in worship, sermon emphases, and ministerial education of congregation’s leader.
The reasons for changes in the common core questionnaire vary, from time constraints to inapplicability of the question to research priorities. Because the surveys varied in what they asked, the broad implications drawn from the overall data of this report may not apply to a particular group.