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Saturday, March 17, 2001

Morality = church growth?

Most congregations in U.S. poll stress personal devotions

By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret News religion editor

Results of a new national survey of religious faith show that churches that emphasize personal and public morality are healthier financially and attract more new members than their peers.
Researchers at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary released results of the survey this week during a press conference in New York. The largest survey of congregations ever conducted in the United States, the data came from 41 denominations and faith groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Working from a core questionnaire developed by representatives of each faith, individual denominations were able to tailor a total of 26 individual surveys that more specifically addressed the particulars of their congregations. Some 14,301 congregations participated.
Many of the major denominations included in the Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey released the results for their own congregations on their Web sites following Tuesday's press conference, while others - including LDS Church leaders - are still mulling the results before releasing them to the public.
Church spokesman Clark Hirschi said the church is still looking at the data gathered from 969 LDS congregations nationwide - a larger sample than from any other faith group except one dubbed "historically black denominations," which consisted of seven different faith groupings.
In a statement on the survey, the church said it is "pleased with the general results," which were "not unlike what we expected.... The research results seem to bear out that many are looking for spiritual constancy amid change," a message the statement says church leaders "have been sounding... for many years. On several occasions in recent interviews, President Gordon B. Hinckley has credited the church's unprecedented growth and success to the stable and unchanging teachings of the Savior, as found in his church.
"Not surprising, the research clearly supports the strong link between religious conviction and involvement and the strength and survival of the traditional family unit. It is in the home where faith in Jesus Christ is taught and practiced that families will find success and joy in this life, and the life to come."
Project directors David Roozen and Carl Dudley note in a summary of their findings that "congregational participants are more likely to be married and to be in households with children than the general population," offering "support for those who have noted the close connection between organized religious involvement and traditional notions of family."
The wide-ranging research shows that financially healthy congregations directly correlate with high in denominational loyalty, focused clarity and purpose, and high moral standards. "Two out of three congregations that emphasize personal and public morality also report healthy finances and membership growth," the report said. "Congregations that place less emphasis on these standards are more likely to report plateaued or declining membership."
Results showed a large majority "of the most vital congregations report that they have a clarity of purpose and explicit member expectations that are strictly enforced."
The report says more than 80 percent of congregations put a high emphasis on personal devotions, while just over 50 percent emphasize family devotions and avoiding premarital sex. Just under 50 percent emphasize Sabbath observance. Avoiding alcohol is important to about 35 percent of congregations, fasting was emphasized by roughly 15 percent, as was having religious symbols in the home. Less than 10 percent of the congregations reported emphasizing dietary restrictions.
Roozen and Dudley said the report is encouraging because "the great majority of faith communities are vital and alive" and half of the faith communities "see themselves growing in numbers."
The numbers show that the surge in evangelical Protestantism, as well as rapid growth among Baha'is, Muslims and Latter-day Saints over the past 20 years "is rapidly putting a new face on American religion" as the data document a downturn in the growth of mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The researchers said congregations grow in several ways, including: "cultural affinity, finding "our kind of people"; community involvement; organizational focus and vision in action; offering both care and discipline for members; finding inspiration in worship; and promotional programs." Growth is heaviest in new suburban communities where "religious participation is supported by family composition, higher educational levels and income, available teenagers and young adults, and a higher percentage of male participants."
The report examines a variety of other topics, including sources of unity and cohesion within churches, change, conflict, worship, activities, community outreach, interfaith relationships, denominational materials, facilities and finances, and leadership.

©Copyright 2001, Deseret News

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