By Warren Bird
The face of religion across the United States has recently changed in five primary areas. These shifts were identified by a national survey conducted in three times over a 14-year period. The recently released findings covered congregations that are Protestant, Catholic and other traditions from Mormon to Jewish.
The overall trends:
1. Size. Since 1998 (when the first wave of the survey was fielded) American congregations have, on average, either remained stable in size or have somewhat shrunk. Averaging all faith groups together, median attendance at all weekend worship services is 76. Yet at the same time the average religious service attendee is experiencing a congregation of increasing size. This speaks to the widespread rise of large-attendance churches. According to Leadership Network research, almost 1 in 5 US Protestant churchgoers attends a church with an attendance of 1,000 or higher.
2. Diversity. Each passing year sees more ethnic diversity within congregations. For example, today’s predominantly white congregations are less predominantly white than they were in 1998. Even so, most congregations are still made up 80% or more of one primary ethnic group.
3. Worship style. The shift continues toward increasingly informal worship styles. More people attend worship services containing drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, visual projection equipment, a time during the service when people greet one another, or speaking in tongues. Fewer people attend services that include choirs, and fewer attend services that use a written program or bulletin.
4. Denomination. While the vast majority of the churchgoing population remain denominationally affiliated, the influence of denominations is waning. At the same time, an increasing number of congregations are unaffiliated with a denomination or convention.
5. LGBT. Combining all religious traditions, congregations that “permit full-fledged membership for openly gay or lesbian couples in a committed relationship” climbed to 48% in 2012, up from 37% in 2006. Some congregations have not changed at all in welcoming LGBT membership, and others have changed dramatically.
The National Congregations Study, led by Dr Mark Chaves, conducted interviews averaging 50 minutes each with a key informant, usually a clergyperson, from 1,331 congregations. The survey waves were 1998, 2006-2007 and 2012.