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National Congregations Study: Worship Is Increasingly Informal

National Congregations Study: Worship Is Increasingly Informal

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 and specifics on worship services, the surprises and highlights of the study, and what it tells us about the power of small groups and choirs.

The recent report of the National Congregations Study, which I summarized here, devotes an entire section to worship* practices in American congregations (you can read the full report and check out the entire data set). The study gives us reliable information on things like what percentage of churches (and what kinds—Catholic, Evangelical etc.) use drums or have dancing in their services. Because this study has taken place three times since 1998, it also reveals trends about these practices.

The study's authors, Mark Chaves and Alison Eagle,  say these trends are "increasingly informal." But what does that mean? And what churches are actually likely to have these informal services?

Here are the big findings from the study (findings that you might see as the hard data confirming what you already thought was the case):

Summary of findings on worship from Religious Congregations in 21st Century America, the 2015 report of the National Congregations Study

Summary of findings on worship from Religious Congregations in 21st Century America, the 2015 report of the National Congregations Study

But here’s what that list doesn’t tell you: most of those changes are happening in white Protestant churches. In Black Protestant services, these factors were already pervasive in 1998 and have remained so. Catholic services have increasingly used visual projection equipment, drums, and a greeting time—but their use of visual projection and drums remain comparatively low (4.3% versus 29.4% overall, and 11.7% versus 29.4% overall, respectively), and the greeting time in Catholic services is usually the “passing of the peace” (so, no innovation there). White protestant services—both conservative and liberal—are by far the most likely to be making these changes.

Change in worship service elements from 1998 to 2012, from Religious Congregations in 21st Century America, the 2015 report of the National Congregations Study

Change in worship service elements from 1998 to 2012, from Religious Congregations in 21st Century America, the 2015 report of the National Congregations Study

Worship services are more Informal—but what does “informal” mean?

Chaves and Eagle summarize these trends by saying that “worship services have become more informal in recent years.” 

Here's what they mean by “more informal”:

more churches using contemporary music and musical styles, more spontaneous speaking from people in the pews, more unscripted bodily movement, and other developments that make worship more expressive and apparently focused on producing a certain kind of religious experience for participants.

To me, the term “informality” doesn’t adequately encompass the whole range of service elements from printed bulletins to choral singing to applause. (Plus it has strong emotional connotations, both positive and negative. Informal can bring up familial acceptance and belonging, but on the flip side, informal can imply irreverence and carelessness about doctrine, especially when the term is used by conservative evangelicals.)

Instead, I think “more informal” can be broken down into two main things that can both feel informal: services seem more spontaneous and they are more likely to use contemporary worship music.

I say seem more spontaneous because most things aren’t really spontaneous. The lack of a printed order of service suggests openness to spontaneity, but of course, the shape of the service is actually predetermined (even a Quaker meeting is a planned spontaneity). And shouting and hand raising are spontaneous in a sense, but at the same time, they almost always happen during similar points of the service.

And contemporary worship music: drums, guitars, visual projection are up, organs and choirs are down. Contemporary music reads as informal because of its cultural associations (e.g. rock concerts) and the kinds of clothing contemporary musicians often wear in services. Choir members and organists, on the other hand, often wear robes, and they often sing/play music that is more influenced by classical than pop music (especially in white Protestant traditions)—both features that are culturally associated with formality.

Why are services more informal?

Chaves and Eagle suggest four reasons for this increasing informality, but these are just hypothesis—possible reasons for the trend:

  • the influence of Pentecostal-style worship, especially speaking in tongues (a practice that has increased from 24% to 30% of congregations from 1998 to 2012)
  • “a wide cultural trend toward informality” (think of how people dress compared with a decade or two ago, how often adults address each other with titles versus the past)
  • “the spread of evangelical worship music” along with its cultural association of informality
  • denominations whose congregational practice tend toward formality—Catholics and mainline Protestants—are either combining or closing churches, resulting in fewer congregations with more formal services

Regardless of the reasons for increasing informality, Chaves and Eagle say:

this trend partakes of a decades-long trend in American religion away from an emphasis on belief and doctrine and toward an emphasis on experience, emotion, and the search for a least-common-denominator kind of worship in a time of ever less salient denominationally specific liturgical and theological content.

Now whether you (or I) think that’s a good thing is another story, right?

*“Worship” here is a short-hand for “what happens during a worship service,” which, not surprisingly, is short for “what happens during the main church service of the week.” I don’t think “worship” necessarily equals “the things we do together as a congregation in a service” but for convenience, I’m using the term as the study uses it.

Drums Are Not That Common And 6 Other Surprises from the National Congregations Study

Drums Are Not That Common And 6 Other Surprises from the National Congregations Study

National Congregations Study: How Does Your Worship Service Compare?

National Congregations Study: How Does Your Worship Service Compare?