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LIVING - WEDNESDAY - March 14, 2001


Picture emerges of religion in America in megastudy of 14,000 congregations

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Strict churches are financially healthy, world religions are outpacing many Christian groups in growth and congregations that use electric guitars are likely to attract new members.

Those are among the findings of Faith Communities Today, the largest survey of American religious congregations ever conducted.

The study, released Tuesday in Connecticut by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, covers more than 14,000 congregations in 41 faiths and denominations, and deals with topics from clergy age to worship style.

"This really afforded us the opportunity to sit down and take a look at ourselves and who we are," said Craig This, director of research for the 8.5 million-member United Methodist Church. "And the opportunity to compare ourselves with other denominations and faith groups is a great benefit --- not so much in the sense of competition, but it helps some of our pastors to see they're not alone in their endeavors."

The survey showed that although much attention is given to so-called megachurches, with thousands of members, half the congregations in the country have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults, most are in small towns or rural areas and a majority were organized before 1945.

In fact, some of today's large churches were older, small-town churches that --- with the right circumstances and leadership --- were catapulted by suburban growth into megachurch status, said Scott Thumma, a Hartford researcher who surveyed large congregations for the study. Major Southern Baptist churches in some Atlanta suburbs such as Snellville are examples.

Although the stereotypical megachurch is conservative Protestant, the Hartford survey showed that, on average, Catholic churches are larger than any other group, regardless of geographic setting.

Newer churches --- those organized since 1990 --- are likely to be evangelical Protestant. But the second-largest group of new congregations --- representing more than 20 percent --- are "world religions," including Baha'i, Judaism, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Islam. "This trend is rapidly putting a new face on American religion," says the report.

The Hartford study, funded by the Lilly Endowment, grew out of a discussion at a 1995 meeting of researchers. For the most part, groups surveyed their own congregations, working from a core questionnaire. The Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta supervised the study among predominantly African-American denominations, and the Alpharetta-based North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention collected data in the country's largest Protestant group. Hartford professors David Roozen and Carl Dudley compiled the results of 26 separate research organizations, weighing them so that they would reflect the makeup of the religious population as a whole.

Some participating groups have begun examining their data in addition to the larger study. From a representative sample of 710 Southern Baptist churches, for example, North American Mission Board officials have learned that one in 12 Southern Baptist churches conducts two or more Sunday morning services and three-fourths hold Sunday evening worship. More than 90 percent of the congregations surveyed said their members consider it important to be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and the typical church gives at least 10 percent of its income to denominational missions.

Overall, the Hartford study found that most congregations consider themselves vital and healthy, and half are growing in membership.

Among points of concern: an aging clergy --- especially among Roman Catholics, Orthodox and predominantly African-Amercian denominations. Clergy in these faiths have an average age in the mid-50s.

An overview of the study's findings has been published in a 68-page report. The data are also available in a "workbook" online through the Web site of the Hartford Institute, allowing comparison between specific groups, regions of the country or sizes of congregations.

The electronic version "will accommodate the diverse needs of literally thousands of congregations, denominational leaders, seminary faculty, consultants . . . and others who will use this research," said Dudley.

In preparatory meetings, Muslims and Jews, Baptists and Mormons, liberal Protestants and Pentecostals worked together, said researcher Thumma. "They got into major discussions of theology: What does worship mean? What does it mean to be a spiritually vital congregation?" he said. "It was one of the most amazing religious events I've ever participated in."

Although the American religious landscape is becoming increasingly diverse, individual worshippers are very likely to be in congregations made up mostly of members of their own race or ethnic group. More than three in four congregations report that most or all of their regularly attending adult worshippers are white --- a circumstance that reflects the population of the ZIP code areas in which they are located. Therefore, according to the survey, the adage that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week is not necessarily true. "Sunday morning is neither more (nor less) segregated than Saturday night," the report says.

But there are differences, even among largely white Protestant groups: The larger the congregation, the greater the percentage of young adults and the greater percentage of male worshippers it is likely to have, regardless of denomination. Liberal Protestant congregations generally have a higher percentage of college graduates than other groups. Evangelical Protestant churches tend to have more young adults and families with young children.

Strong public stands on morality by a congregation are usually linked to financial soundness and growth, the study shows. A commitment to social ministry also seems to correlate with congregational vitality.

But if a church really wants to draw new members and fill its offering plates, it needs two things: an electric guitar and an electronic keyboard --- and maybe a set of drums. Says the report: "Changes in worship patterns, especially in using new instruments... have a strong, positive association with congregational vitality, member growth, financial stability and other signs of a healthy congregation."

> ON THE WEB: Faith Communities Today report:

Graph shows percentage of congregation Before 1945, 1945-65, 1966-90, 1990-2000
Liberal Protestant
Moderate Protestant
Evangelical Protestant
Historically black Protestant
Catholic and Orthodox
Baha'i, Judaism, Mormon, Islam
Source: Faith Communities Today
/ Jerome Thompson / Staff

(Graphs show results from a study of congregations in America)
More than half of congregations are in towns of rural settings:
25%....Cities 100,000 +
52%....Town or rural settings
Half of congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults:
50%.....fewer than 100
More than half of congregations were founded before 1945:
53%....Before 1945
Source: Faith Communities Today
Jerome Thompson / Staff

©Copyright 2001, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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