New contours in America's religious landscape

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While Census 2000 is updating views of the American landscape, there's one scene it can't describe - religion. Another group of researchers, however, has been busy over the past five years on the most sweeping survey of US congregational life ever completed.

Among the findings: More than half of congregations are growing, those in the West more rapidly even than those in the South, and so-called world religions (Latter-Day Saints, Muslims, and Baha'is) are the fastest growing of all faiths.

At the same time, half of US congregations have fewer than 100 participating adult members, and a quarter have less than 50. Some 52 percent are located in small towns and rural areas.

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While megachurches have received much attention in recent years and have contributed to the rapid church growth in newer suburbs, congregations of more than 1,000 members represent less than 10 percent of the total.

"Many people are surprised by the pervasiveness of small congregations," says David Roozen, a co-director of the survey from Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR) at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "But there is also a surprising level of vitality in the majority of both small and large churches."

"Faith Communities Today" - the report released last week on more than 14,000 congregations in 41 denominations - is an interfaith collaboration of researchers from 26 faith groups, headed by HIRR and supported by the Lilly Endowment. All US faith groups were invited to participate, but some - such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Jehovah's Witnesses - chose not to take part. The project represents 90 percent of American worshippers.

The groups conducted the survey within their own denominations, using a common questionnaire, with some additional questions pertinent to their group.

"This allows us to develop a profile of our own congregations and compare it with other denominations," says Craig This, director of research for the United Methodist Church. "We can look for commonalities in problems we are struggling with and in experiments with types of worship, and for ways we can cooperate in social outreach."

The survey revealed that growth and vitality appear most closely related to the use of contemporary forms of worship and to social outreach activities, as well as a clear sense of purpose and strong moral standards.

Many of the healthiest churches offer styles that appeal to younger people, like use of electric keyboards and guitars. "We really see for the first time a broad adaptation" of contemporary forms within congregations, Dr. Roozen says. "It is part of a more expressive, experiential, and relational style of worship, as opposed to a doctrinal lecture."

But many congregations that have changed their worship, the report showed, have also had to pay the price of conflict among members. A challenge for religious leadership is to learn to deal effectively with change and conflict.

Fully 85 percent of congregations offer some form of community service, making such ministries more common than prayer groups, choirs, and theological study. And contrary to previous reports that connected social outreach to declining memberships, the study says that "congregations with a strong commitment to social justice and direct participation in community outreach ministries are more likely to be growing than other congregations."

Outreach programs most frequently provide crisis services such as cash assistance, food, and thrift shops. About half offer hotline or counseling services, and a third offer tutoring and substance-abuse programs. While these efforts are making major contributions to community welfare, the report says, many lack the infrastructure to provide social services on more than an informal basis.

Among other findings:

* Worship services remain racially segregated, but "Sunday morning is neither more (nor less) segregated than Saturday night." Houses of worship simply mirror the demographic composition of their zip codes.

* More than half of Latino and black congregations place high value on using their religious communities to preserve ethnic or racial heritage.

* Contrary to reports of a breakdown in denominational loyalty, nearly two-thirds of congregations maintain strong ties to their denominations.

* Larger congregations have a greater proportion of young adults and of male worshippers.

* Evangelical Protestants account for the largest portion of new congregations; Roman Catholics have the largest congregations (averaging more than 2,000 members).

* Promotional campaigns energize members, but are not particularly effective in attracting new people.

* About one-third of congregations have plateaued, and about 19 percent have lost members.

This study can help denominations help churches that are struggling, Mr. This says. "Many [United Methodist] churches that are plateauing or declining still have a clear presence in their community," he says. "How do you help them maintain that presence in a cost- and staff-efficient way?"

While small churches can be fragile, Roozen says, small doesn't have to mean dwindling. "Think of them like small businesses," he adds. "Tons of congregations in the Northeast and Midwest have never been bigger than 100 members, and have an incredible resilience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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