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National Congregations Study: How Does Your Worship Service Compare?

National Congregations Study: How Does Your Worship Service Compare?

This post is part of a series on the National Congregations Study, a sociological study of religious congregations in America. Check out my summary of the study's main findings, 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.

Want to know what churches really do with their worship services and music?

The recent report of the National Congregations Study (NCS) covers a wide range of topics related to congregations in America from their annual budget and number of paid clergy and staff, to their political involvement and community services (read my summary here). It also examines worship services—what congregations do every week and how they do it.

All told, the study asked congregational leaders 826 questions. There's a full report on the latest study, and the entire data set is available along with fun tools for comparing the data. 

But if you want to know what's most relevant to worship practices, church services, music, and so on, this is the place to be.

I've pulled out the 38 questions that relate to these areas, and then grouped them into seven basic categories:

  • How do attendees follow the service—bulletin? visual projection?
  • What kinds of vocal music—congregational singing? soloists?
  • What kinds of instrumental music—electric guitar? piano?
  • Music ensembles/groups—a choir? a youth ensemble?
  • Other musical elements—how many minutes of music at a typical service? any difference in musical style between multiple services held on the same weekend?
  • Other congregational participation—amens? hand-raising? responsorial readings?
  • Other relevant service elements—robes? silent prayer? incense?

How the findings break down by category

The study breaks down the findings by branch of Christianity, geographic region, theology (conservative to liberal), and political ideology (also conservative to liberal). Plus they are grouped by year of the study (it's been conducted 3 times—1998, 2006-2007, and 2012), so you can see longterm trends. 

This post focuses on the findings as they relate to the study's categories of Christianity: Roman Catholic, white conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist, black Protestant, and white liberal/moderate. (The study also gives results on non-Christian congregations, but these are not broken down further.)

For every question, I've also provided a direct link to the full results. So, if you’re curious, you can see how the findings break down according to geographic, theological, and political criteria, without having to sift through the whole 826 questions.


Want to know what I found most surprising and interesting in all the data presented below? Check out this post

...you're not alone if your church doesn't have incense...or drums...or dancing...


How do attendees follow the service?

Bulletin or order of service?

"Was there a written order of service or program that people could follow, either in book form or as a handout?"

  • 67.2% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—88.6%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—54.7%
  • Black Protestant—72.8%
  • White liberal/moderate—87.8%
    See the full results here.

Visual projection in the main service?

"Was any visual projection equipment used in this [main] service?"

  • 25% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic— 4.3%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist— 38.5%
  • Black Protestant — 13%
  • White liberal/moderate— 17.5%
    See the full results here.

Song lyrics projected on a wall or screen at the main service?

  • 31.5% congregations said yes
  • Roman Catholic—4.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—50%
  • Black Protestant—9.5%
  • White liberal/moderate—28.1%
    See the full results here.

Song lyrics printed on flyer or handout in the main service?

  • 26.1% congregations said yes
  • Roman Catholic—45.2%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—20.5%
  • Black Protestant—17.3%
  • White liberal/moderate—37%
    See the full results here.

Vocal Music

Congregational singing at the main service?

  • 96.8% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—96.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—98.8%
  • Black Protestant—98.6%
  • White liberal/moderate—97.9%
    See the full results here.

Soloist singing at the main service?

  • 40.9% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—34.4%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—51.5%
  • Black Protestant—49.2%
  • White liberal/moderate—21.9%
    See the full results here.

Instrumental Music

Musical instruments at the main service?

  • 85.2% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—93.3%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—85.4%
  • Black Protestant—85.1%
  • White liberal/moderate—92.8% 
    See the full results here.

Piano used at the main service?

  • 68.9% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—34.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—81.3%
  • Black Protestant—67.4%
  • White liberal/moderate—67.3%
    See the full results here.

Organ used at the main service?

  • 47.1% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—69.8%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—37.2%
  • Black Protestant—55.2%
  • White liberal/moderate—61.4%
    See the full results here.

Drums used at the main service?

  • 29.4% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—11.7%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—28%
  • Black Protestant—62.7%
  • White liberal/moderate—9.8%
    See the full results here.

Electric guitar used at the main service?

  • 20.8% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—18.8%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—27.5%
  • Black Protestant—21.1%
  • White liberal/moderate—13.8%
    See the full results here.

Guitar used at the main service?

  • 31.6% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—37.4%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—40.6%
  • Black Protestant—24.8%
  • White liberal/moderate—19.9%
    See the full results here.

Musical Groups

Any musical groups?

“Does your congregation have any choirs, choruses, or other musical groups that sing or perform on a regular basis?”

  • 64.5% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—73.3%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—59.3%
  • Black Protestant—90.7%
  • White liberal/moderate—63.8%
    See the full results here.

Choral singing at the main service?

  • 47.4% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—67.7%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—36.8%
  • Black Protestant—73.1%
  • White liberal/moderate—47.9%
    See the full results here.

Musical groups of teenagers?

“Do you have choirs or other musical groups comprised primarily of teens?”

  • 34.2% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—41.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—25.1%
  • Black Protestant—66.8%
  • White liberal/moderate—19.7%
    See the full results here.

How many musical groups?

“How many different musical groups are there [in your congregation]?”

On average, a congregation has 1.63 musical groups, and the standard deviation 2.45 (i.e. 65% of congregations have between zero and 4.08 musical groups—and a big chunk of those have no music groups at all)

See the full results here—this result looks different from many of the others, and you have to search for Question #307 to find it.

Other Musical Elements

Difference in formality at multiple weekend services?

At churches with multiple weekend services, was there a difference in formality between the different services?

  • 30.2% mentioned this type of difference
  • Roman Catholic—8.5%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—34.1%
  • Black Protestant—22.5%
  • White liberal/moderate—43.8%
    See the full results here.

Difference in music used at multiple weekend services?

At churches with multiple weekend services, was there a difference in kinds of music between the different services? 

  • 14% congregations said yes
  • Roman Catholic—26.6%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—10.2%
  • Black Protestant—5.3%
  • White liberal/moderate—47.7%
    See the full results here.

Any paid musician at the main service?

  • 23.9% congregations said yes
  • Roman Catholic—43.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—14.5%
  • Black Protestant—23.2%
  • White liberal/moderate—44.1%
    See the full results here.

Any hired musicians in the last year?

  • 35.9% congregations said yes
  • Roman Catholic—45.6%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—31.6%
  • Black Protestant—27.7%
  • White liberal/moderate—46.6%
    See the full results here.

How many paid musicians in the main service?

On average, a congregation has 0.38 paid musicians in their main service (i.e. a congregation is more likely to have no paid musicians than even one), and the standard deviation is 0.91 (i.e. way more churches hire no body than hire a single person).

See the full results here—this result looks different from many of the others, and you have to search for Question #230 to find it.

How many minutes of music all told in the main service?

On average a main service has 24.79 minutes of music. The standard deviation is 17.36 minutes (i.e. 65% of congregations have between 7.43 minutes and 42.15 minutes of music in their main service).

See the full results here—this result looks different from many of the others, and you have to search for Question #208 to find it.

Copyright license?

“Does your congregation have a copyright license agreement to perform or sing certain songs in worship services?”

  • 51.1% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—68.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—59%
  • Black Protestant—18.8%
  • White liberal/moderate—69.6%
    See the full results here.

Other Congregational Participation

Spontaneous amens?

"Did anyone call out 'amen' or other expressions of approval [in the main service]?"

  • 66.4% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—40.2%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—76%
  • Black Protestant—95.7%
  • White liberal/moderate—33.2%
    See the full results here.

Any applause in the main service?

  • 60.6% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—30.3%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—60.7%
  • Black Protestant—90.4%
  • White liberal/moderate—46.7%
    See the full results here.

Any laughter in the main service?

  • 74.7% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—50%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—73%
  • Black Protestant—75.5%
  • White liberal/moderate—86.7%
    See the full results here.

Are there corporate readings/recitations in the main service?

"Did the people speak or read or recite something together at any point [in the main service]?"

  • 61.3% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—96.6%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—35.5%
  • Black Protestant—79.2%
  • White liberal/moderate—87.6%
    See the full results here.

Spontaneous movement or shouting in the main service?

"Did any adults jump, shout, or dance spontaneously during this [main] service?"

  • 24% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—2.7%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—21.6%
  • Black Protestant—63.9%
  • White liberal/moderate—2.8%
    See the full results here.

Hand raising during the main service?

"Did anyone besides the leader raise their hands in praise during the [main] service?"

  • 53.9% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—42.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—57.1%
  • Black Protestant—92.2%
  • White liberal/moderate—24%
    See the full results here.

Hand-holding in the main service?

Did people join hands at any point during the [main] service, such as during a prayer or at other moments?

  • 37% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—54%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—27.7%
  • Black Protestant—72.9%
  • White liberal/moderate—18%
    See the full results here.

Speaker's movement in the main service?

"Did the speaker come down from the altar, podium, chancel, or stage during the sermon [at the main service]?"

  • 49.6% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—37.1%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—50.3%
  • Black Protestant—62.2%
  • White liberal/moderate—41.6%
    See the full results here.

Other Relevant Service Elements

Incense in the main service?

  • 3.9% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—20%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—3.1%
  • Black Protestant—1%
  • White liberal/moderate— 1.8%
    See the full results here.

Silent prayer or meditation in the main service?

"Was there a time during the [main] service for silent prayer or meditation?"

  • 73.6% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—91.7%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—67.7%
  • Black Protestant—66.2%
  • White liberal/moderate—83.9%
    See the full results here.

Time for greetings in the main service?

"Was there a time during the [main] service in which people in the congregation greeted each other by shaking hands or some other way?"

  • 80.2% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—93.7%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—77.6%
  • Black Protestant—88.1%
  • White liberal/moderate—78.9%
    See the full results here.

Mingling before/after the main service?

“For about how long would you say that people in this congregation usually mingle and socialize informally with each other before and after the [main] service?”

On average, there are 35.37 minutes of mingling before and after a main service, and the standard deviation is 27.9 minutes (i.e. 65% of congregations have between 7.47 minutes and 63.27 minutes of mingling).

See the full results here—this result looks different from many of the others, and you have to search for Question #240 to find it.

Robes or special garments in the main service?

"Did the leader of this [main] service wear a robe or other special garments?"

  • 31.2% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—93.3%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—8%
  • Black Protestant—43.1%
  • White liberal/moderate—49.8%
    See the full results here.

Communion in the main service?

"Was communion or the Lord's Supper celebrated at this [main] service?"

  • 32.3% congregations say yes
  • Roman Catholic—90%
  • White conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist—18.9%
  • Black Protestant—23.1%
  • White liberal/moderate—45.4%
    See the full results here.
National Congregations Study: Worship Is Increasingly Informal

National Congregations Study: Worship Is Increasingly Informal

National Congregations Study: The Main Findings

National Congregations Study: The Main Findings