Duke University has just released a report of its National Congregations Study for 2006-7, comparing American churches with churches in 1998. It’s an interesting read. The survey includes 2,740 congregations across the country, and so is among the most detailed and statistically valid surveys available.
The report concludes,
• Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations.
• Worship services are becoming more informal.
• Congregational leaders are still overwhelmingly male.
• Predominantly white congregations are more ethnically diverse.
• Congregations embrace technology.
• Congregations and clergy are getting older.
• Congregations’ position in the social class structure remains unchanged.
• Congregations’ involvement in social service activities remains unchanged.
• Only a small minority of congregations describe themselves as theologically “liberal,” even within the Protestant mainline.
• Congregations are more tolerant and inclusive than we might expect them to be, even when it comes to hot-button issues.
• There has been no significant increase in congregational conflict since 1998.
• Congregations’ involvement in political activities is largely unchanged since 1998.
Some of these conclusions are pretty surprising to me, especially as you dig into some of the details.
• In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average congregation had just 75 regular participants.
• In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average attendee worshiped in a congregation with about 400 regular participants.
This is not inconsistent. The report explains,
To get a feel for just how concentrated people are in the largest congregations, imagine that we have lined up all congregations in the United States, from the smallest to the largest. Imagine that you are walking up this line, starting with the smallest. When you get to a congregation with 400 people, you would have walked past about half of all churchgoers, but more than 90% of all congregations!
This has some very practical implications —
It means that most seminarians come from large churches (since that’s where most people are), but most clergy jobs are in small churches.
When a Bible major graduates from one of our universities, he probably grew up in a church much larger than the first church that will hire him. He probably attended a church while in college much larger than the church that will hire him. And he will probably be moving to a much smaller town than the one he grew up in.
How well will his Bible major or M.Div. prepare him to minister in a congregation of 125? How well will he be prepared to minister to a rural congregation when he grew up in the suburbs?
In the Churches of Christ, his first ministry will likely be in a church that is more conservative than he is on many doctrinal issues. Progressive congregations tend to be more urban and larger. Will he be prepared to work with an eldership that has very different views than what he learned in college? Can he even get hired coming from ACU or Lipscomb or Pepperdine by a congregation that subscribes to the Gospel Advocate and the Spiritual Sword?
I really don’t have the answers. I just trust that our Bible faculties are aware of the issue and spend some time with their students counseling them on how to deal with the challenges.
I have a friend who excitedly told me that his old church — a congregation of 150 or so — had been radically turned around by their new minister, hired straight out of college. The minister had the personality and training needed to teach grace to a very old school congregation, and the church is thrilled by their new preacher. But many churches have fired ministers for the very same thing!
Worship services are more informal
• Fewer congregations incorporate choir singing into worship, falling from 54% in 1998 to 44% in 2006-07.
• The number of congregations that use a printed bulletin dropped from 72% to 68%.
• Far more use visual projection equipment in worship, increasing dramatically from only 12% to 27%.
• The number of congregations in which someone other than the leader speaks at worship about their own religious experience increased from 78% to 85%.
• More congregations report people spontaneously saying “amen,” jumping from 61% to 71%.
• More report people jumping, shouting, or dancing spontaneously, up from 19% to 26%.
• The number of congregations in which people raise their hands in praise grew from 45% to 57%.
• More congregations report applause breaking out, rising from 55% to 61%.
• The number of congregations that use drums increased from 20% to 33%.
Obviously, this survey wasn’t limited to Churches of Christ! We evidence our increasing informality by different means — mainly through changes in how we dress. We’ve always been pretty low church otherwise.
Interestingly, the report notes that the trend toward informality is largely among Protestants.
Most of the increase in informality occurs among Protestants. Catholic churches have increased only their use of visual projection equipment and drums, while the increase in jumping, shouting, and dancing remains concentrated in predominantly African American churches.
And this means the percentage increase among Protestants is much higher than shown, as the survey population was nearly 30% Catholic — so, roughly, a 10% overall increase would be a 15% increase among Protestants, for example.
White congregations are more racially diverse
In particular, predominantly white congregations are becoming less white. In the period between 1998 and 2006-07:
• The percent of congregations with more than 80% white participation dropped from 72 to 63%.
• The percent of people who attend congregations in which more than 80% of participants are white and non-Hispanic dropped from 72 to 66%.
• The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some Hispanic participants increased from 57 to 64%.
• The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some recent immigrants bumped up from 39 to 51%.
• The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some Asian participants increased from 41 to 50%.
These changes in part reflect recent immigration, but something more is afoot. The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with some African American attendees also increased, from 60% to 66%.In short, there are fewer all white congregations in the United States today. More predominantly white congregations have at least some Latino, Asian, or African American presence.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously — and accurately — said that the most segregated hour of the week is 11:00 Sunday morning. We are centuries late in beginning to rectify this sin. And at this point, the movement toward racial integration are painfully slow, but progress is being made.
I believe we’ll see integration occur much more rapidly over the next several years. When the kids presently in college or their 20’s become elders, things will likely be radically different. I say this because I see much less consciousness of racial separation among the younger Christians. And it’s a very good, very needed thing.
The other side of the coin is this: if churches continue to segregate themselves, we’ll lose our young members. They see racial segregation as one of the worst of all sins — and they’re right. They won’t be able to see Jesus in a lily-white congregation in a racially mixed town. Therefore, people my age need to be working hard to break down racial barriers. It’s God’s will — and the church won’t last another generation if we don’t get with it.
It also is worth asking whether even a few African Americans, Hispanics, or recent immigrants in a congregation affect that congregation’s life in important ways. John Green, a University of Akron professor and a leading expert on religion and politics, argues that congregations are easier to politicize when they are more homogeneous. Is a clergyperson with even one black family in the pews likely to talk in quite the same way about race and social welfare issues as he would if that family was not there? Is a congregation with even one Latino family likely to approach immigration reform in quite the same way? How this increasing pluralism might change congregations deserves additional research and reflection.
This one blew me away. I mean, it’s so true … but I’d never thought in those terms. Oh, wow! We also need to be integrated because it’ll make us better people. It’s easy to be insensitive and self-centered in a church where everyone is white, middle class, and prosperous. When you have all kinds of people present, you learn to be more careful about what you say. Eventually, you realize that what you used to say was wrong. Segregation in church is an unspeakable evil, in part because of what we fail to learn when we’re segregated.