Published Saturday, March 31, 2001
Study tracks participation in church
A few years ago, two faculty members at Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut embarked on a sweeping project, a study of religious life in the United States across a wide array of faiths.
The result, released this month, is a survey called "Faith Communities Today," which includes information on topics like finances, programs and leadership among 41 denominations and faith groups, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Baha'i. The project's directors, David A. Roozen and Carl S. Dudley, have estimated that the material they gathered represents the experience of 90 percent of the nation's religious worshipers.
And that makes one finding in particular stand out: Half of all congregations, according to the report, contain fewer than 100 adults who regularly participate in those congregations.
This has many implications, not least for President Bush's hopes that the nation's "faith-based communities" can be encouraged toward greater collaboration with government in providing social services.
In an interview, Roozen said some people had had a better sense of these congregations when he compared them with small businesses. In the nation's economic life, he said, "small businesses seem to be the driving force of innovation, but they are fragile."
When it comes to congregations, he said, "large and small are not better or worse, but they're different."
The small ones "draw people in at a higher level of personal commitment, because of the social relationships," he said. "That's part of their strength and vitality. I think that's why so many more Americans are involved in religious organizations than you find in European countries."
But their size also limits what these congregations can do.
Some small congregations function without even written budgets. "It works perfectly well as a house of worship," Roozen said. "But it's hard to imagine that kind of congregation moving easily into an application for federal funding."
Again, he cited the analogy with small business. "It's one thing for IBM to keep track of federal regulation, but with small business, it's hard."
But Roozen said there was another way to look at how these small congregations might relate to the possibilities the White House has suggested. At least some of these houses of worship "work in partnership, especially the urban ones, so there's such-and-such County United Ministries," he said.
And even if they have not established a separate, nonprofit organization, the small congregations often "are contributing money and volunteers to other organizations," he said.
The project has an Internet site: http://www.fact.hartsem.edu.
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