National Congregations Study: The Main Findings
This post is part of a series on the National Congregations Study, a sociological study of religious congregations in America. In addition to this summary, check out specifics on worship services, the growing informality of worship services, the surprises and highlights of the study, and what it tells us about the power of small groups and choirs.
You might have a sense that worship services in America are increasingly informal, that they are more likely to have applause and guitars and less likely to have a choir than they used to. But other than anecdotal evidence, how do you know?
Or you may have noticed that your church has stopped used a printed order of service—how does that compare with other churches in your particular branch of Christianity?
The National Congregations Study (NCS) is a sociological study of religious congregations in America (so it includes Christian, Jewish, Buddhist congregations and so on). It provides data on a wide range of topics—how big congregations are, how racially diverse they are, how often they accept gays and lesbians as members, and so on. It also gives you information on specifics like applause, guitars, and choirs.
It’s basically a treasure chest of reliable information about congregations. Budget, health services, use of a website, political involvement—it’s all covered by the study.
Main findings of the National Congregations Study
The NCS has been conducted three times—1998, 2006-2007, and 2012—so earlier and later results can be compared. The report on the latest study was released in November 2015—you can read it here, and the entire data set (plus fun tools to play with it) is available here.
A lot of this isn’t surprising: people in mainline denominations are increasingly older, congregations are more ethnically diverse, and when congregations are politically involved, they tend to speak up about abortion, same-sex marriage, and poverty.
This post covers what I think are the most important aspects of the study. Compared with previous years, congregations are:
- increasingly informal
- more racially and ethnically diverse
- more accepting of gays and lesbians
- less likely to be denominationally affiliated
- have mixed relationships with female leadership
I’ve also written about the study’s findings on worship services (here and here) and the relationship between the power of small groups with a decline in choirs (here).
Worship is increasingly informal…or expressive…
Or, whatever you want to call it when more people are lifting up their hands, greeting each other during a service, and calling out “Amen” during the sermon.
Since this area is so relevant to music and the church, I’ve written an entire post about it. (Spoiler: more guitars, fewer organs. I’m shocked! Shocked!)
Congregations are smaller, but you might not know it
Overall, congregational size has gone down. But since more people are part of bigger congregations, it might seem to them like the average congregational size has gone up.
In other words, most people are part of big congregations, but there are lots of smaller ones, and those small ones are getting even smaller.
Here’s a great illustration of this concentration from Chaves and Eagle:
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 along this line, starting on the end with the smallest congregations. When you get to a congregation with 400 people, you would have walked past about half of all churchgoers, but more than 90% (93%, to be exact) of all congregations! Or imagine walking along this line of congregations from the other direction, start- ing with the very largest. When you get to that same 400-person congregation, you would have walked past only about 7% of all congregations, but half of all churchgoers.
Congregations are more racially and ethnically diverse
There are three big changes in diversity from 1998 to 2012:
First, in 1998, the year the first of these studies was done, 15% of attendees were in congregations where no one racial group made up more than 80% of the congregation; now, that number has increased to 20%. In other words, more people are in churches with more racial diversity.
But you could flip how that’s worded and say: 80% of attendees are part of congregations that are at least 80% one racial group.
Second, in 1998, 72% of attendees were in predominantly white congregations. Now, that’s only 57% of attendees.
Third, in 1998, almost 20% of attendees were in all-white congregations, and now, only 11% are (that’s half the people in 1998).
These changes are happening mostly in white Protestant spheres, especially richer ones. That’s because Catholic congregations and poorer Protestants ones were already more racially diverse in 1998. Black congregations, however, remain predominantly black.
Let’s go back to the first point: 80% of attendees are in congregations with at least 80% one racial group. That doesn’t mean that one of those congregations is completely racially homogenous. Just that it’s mostly one race.
So Chaves and Eagle ask:
Does the presence of even a few African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or recent immigrants in a predominantly white congregation affect that congregation’s life in important ways? Will a clergyperson with even one black family in the pews talk about race, about the relationships between communities and the police, or about other racially charged issues in quite the same way as he or she would if that family was not there? Will the congregation with even one Latino family approach immigration reform in quite the same way?
More congregations accept gays and lesbians as members and lay leaders
Except for Catholic ones. And Evangelicals aren’t very accepting either.
This trend is probably related to the increasing acceptance by straight Americans of LGBTQ people in general (but not by Catholic leaders and not by Evangelicals).
When leaders were asked in 2006 whether or not their congregations allowed openly gay and lesbian people to be members, 63% said no. But in 2012, that number shrunk to 52%.
Similarly, in 2006, leaders in 82% of congregations said there were at least some lay leadership positions closed to gays and lesbians, but in 2012, the number shrank to 73%.
Catholic parishes fall outside the trend though. Even though straight lay Catholics have become increasing accepting of LGBTQ people, it seems that Catholic church leaders have reacted against this increasing acceptance by further limiting membership (decrease from 74% to 54%) leadership positions (39% to 26%).
23% of evangelical congregations accept gays and lesbians as members (a statistically insignificant increase from before, according to the authors), and only 4% accept them as lay leaders (“not even a hint of increased acceptance”). This is in contrast to mainline congregations (76% accept gay and lesbian members, 63% accept gay and lesbian lay leaders), and black Protestant congregations (62% and 22% respectively).
The Chaves and Eagle do offer a caution: Just because a congregation restricts membership and leadership to straight people, doesn’t mean that they don’t actually have gay and lesbian members/leaders. And just because a congregation doesn’t have restrictions on membership or leadership doesn’t mean they are fully welcoming in actual practice.
Fewer congregations have denominational affiliations
In 1998, 18% of congregations were unaffiliated and in 2012 that increased to 24%. Attendees in unaffiliated congregations increased from 10% to 15% over the same years.
These unaffiliated congregations are usually younger ones. In other words, it’s not that congregations are tending to leave denominations, but that newer congregations are increasingly non-denominational.
Of course, given what Catholic and mainline denominations are, the increase in non-denomination congregations is happening mostly in the evangelical and black Protestant spheres.
Female clergy? Or preaching? Or leadership at all?
First of all, there is no overall increase in female clergy being the lead or only clergyperson of a congregation. Their leadership clocks in at 11% overall—20% in mainline and black Protestant congregations, and 3% in evangelical ones.
If they are the senior or solo pastor of a congregation, it’s most often a smaller one. However, there are more female head pastors in larger mainline and black Protestant congregations than there were in 1998—12.4% now vs. 6.1% then.
At the same time, there are lots of women in secondary leadership positions. This partially what it means at face value: plenty of women serve as full-time and part-time ministerial leaders in churches, just not a lot who are the heads of congregations. But there’s also a catch: to be on the “ministerial staff” of a church doesn’t necessarily mean “clergy”—my work as a music director would count as female leadership in this category, as would the leadership of, say, a female youth coordinator.
How about preaching? 66.5% of congregations allow women to preach in a main worship service—and this is basically the same rate as in 1998. Catholics are least likely to allow this (14.7%), mainline Protestants are most likely (93.8%), and evangelicals and black Protestants fall in the middle (54.5% and 75.6%, respectively). Not surprisingly, congregations with more liberal theology and more liberal political ideologies are more likely to allow women to preach, and more conservative ones are less likely. (Read more here if you’re curious about this question—it doesn’t come up directly in the study’s main report.)
Not too many surprises
Studies like this are often confirmations, backed by reliable data, of what we already have a sense of—you probably weren’t surprised to read that there aren’t a lot of churches with female senior pastors or that most people attend churches with predominantly one race, even if racial diversity is up overall (for a few surprises, check out this post).
But they also help us notice what other people—researchers, church leaders—find important. It’s not a mistake that this study asked about the use of bulletins and visual projectors in worship services (check out this post for more on that). Things like that are clues to a congregation’s broader priorities, its relationship to historical traditions, and the way it shapes the corporate expression of faith for an individual attendee.