Wednesday, March 14, 2001
Community Services Abound in Churches Study shows possibilities of 'faith-based' charity
President Bush's call for expanding "faith-based" social service got a boost yesterday with the release of the largest study ever conducted of the nation's 325,000 religious congregations.
The detailed survey found that 85 percent of U.S. congregations already offer community service programs -- making such church ministries more common than prayer groups or choir practice.
According to Hartford Seminary researchers Carl Dudley and David Roozen, the nation's churches have untapped potential to help the needy.
"Since many (congregations) are lacking in financial resources, they would seem to be excellent candidates for government supported 'charitable choice' programs of social concern," they conclude.
The survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research analyzed information sent back from 14,301 churches, synagogues, mosques and other spiritual communities.
It also showed that evangelical Protestant churches, congregations stressing strict moral codes and those using contemporary music are the fastest-growing congregations in America, the survey showed.
The Bush administration, looking to expand the charitable-choice provisions of the 1996 welfare reform law, wants to ease restrictions on religious groups getting government money to feed the hungry, help the poor and heal the addicted.
CRITICISM OF WHITE HOUSE PLAN
But the White House plan has hit a roadblock. Liberals fear that the government will dump the poor on church doorsteps. Conservatives fear that tax money has too many strings attached or will be given to "cults" and unpopular fringe groups. Other critics worry about the separation of church and state.
According to the Hartford survey, the most common social service programs provided by churches today are those offering cash, food, clothing and shelter to needy families and individuals.
More than a third of the congregations surveyed offer day care, substance-abuse counseling or health education.
Roozen and Dudley estimate that 200,000 congregations in the United States support thrift shops, while more than 120,000 spiritual communities tutor children and youth.
"Their contribution to the welfare of communities is far greater than many estimates suggest," the researchers state. "Contrary to some published experts,
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."
Social outreach programs are only a small part of information covered in this extensive survey of 41 religious denominations and faith groups -- including Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims and followers of the Baha'i faith.
WEST COAST GROWTH
The study found that 51 percent of congregations, especially those on the West Coast, report growing memberships.
"The West Coast has lots of population growth, and it's also been a real source of religious innovation," said Roozen. "Because the West is so secular, religious groups have to work hard and creatively."
The survey, funded by the Lilly Endowment, confirms many trends long noted by scholars and journalists charting the American religious landscape.
It found, for example, that Pentecostal and conservative evangelical Protestant churches are growing at an astonishing rate, while many liberal Protestant churches are withering on the vine.
"Moral boundaries make a difference," the report found. "Two out of 3 congregations that emphasize personal or public morality also report healthy finances and membership growth."
SMALL CHURCHES DOMINATE
Despite all the attention focused on "megachurches," small congregations still dominate American religion.
Half of the congregations in the United States have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults, while a quarter have fewer than 50 worshipers. Only around 10 percent have more than 1,000 regular worshipers.
The survey also looked at the revolution in styles of worship in American congregations.
As anyone who has visited a Pentecostal church in the past 10 years knows, contemporary music plays a big role in Protestant church growth. The survey found that fast-growing churches -- whether they were liberal Protestant or conservative evangelical -- grew faster if they used an electronic keyboard during worship services.
Congregations founded after 1966 were more much likely to use drums and electric guitars in their services. Those founded before 1945 fired up the church organ on Sunday and relied more on creeds and statements of faith.
Styles of worship in American churches today dramatically reflect the decade the congregation was founded.
"Congregations, like children, are as much a product of their generation as they are a result of their theological parents," the report concludes.
To draw more worshipers, many of today's religious services allow less formal dress and emphasize storytelling more than doctrine, the survey found. Many Christian services include "less God as judge and more Jesus as friend," Roozen said.
The study warns, however, that "change can prove costly, leading to conflict that impacts member growth, new volunteers and financial support."
Chronicle news services contributed to this report. / E-mail Don Lattin at email@example.com.
©Copyright 2001, San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 3