March 14, 2009

How American Congregations are Changing (and Staying the Same)

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Have you ever picked up a sociology journal and tried to read one of its articles? Well, good luck if the article uses numbers because most quantitative sociological research uses multivariate analysis such as regression that can be difficult for those without a background in statistics to understand. Now, once you get used to this type of research, these articles can make sense, but the methods do pose a barrier for most non-academics . (Qualitative studies have their own problems that typically involve using way too many big, funny sounding words that probably don’t mean anything). That’s probably why the journal American Sociological Review is not sold in supermarket checkout lines.

Every once in awhile, however, studies come along that demonstrate that some of the most important things we learn are simple percentages. Sociologist Mark Chaves provides an example with his National Congregations Study. For this study, conducted in 2006-7, Chaves interviewed pastors or other church leaders from about 1,500 churches drawn from a nationwide, random sample, and he asked them a bunch of questions about their churches. He had done a similar study in 1998, and this allowed him to measure how American congregations have changed over the last decade.

Any guesses as to how?
As reported in the Winter 2008 issue of Sociology of Religion, he and a coauthor found four main changes in congregations in the last ten years:

1) clip_image002Churches use a lot more technology than they used to. They are much more likely to use e-mail to communicate with their members and web pages to advertise themselves in the community. I suppose that this change didn’t surprise me much. The church I attend now has blogs, web pages, Facebook groups, and uses something called Twitter, which may or may not involve birds. This technological change has implications for congregations. By better advertising their beliefs and values, churches might attract like-minded people from further away. This might increase the theological homogeneity of congregations—having people who have similar beliefs with one another than might have previously been the case. Technology also costs money and time, which raises the question of what are churches cutting back on to support their use of technology.

2) Worship services have become more informal. Services are now less likely to have choirs and to use written programs. Instead, they are more likely to have services featuring drums, jumping, shouting, dancing, raised hands in praise, applause, and calling out “amen.” There are some variation in which churches do which—with Catholic churches less increased informality and black churches showing more—but this increased informality appears to be a general trend in religion as it is in society as a whole. clip_image004In line with this trend, probably the best known Evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, who said the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration, is known for wearing Hawaiian shirts when he preaches.

3) Clergy age. From 1998 to 2006, the average age of the American adults has increased by 1 year, but the average age of pastors has increased by 5 years! The median age of the head clergy in the study went from 48 years to 53 years old. That’s a big change, and it’s happening the most in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches (and least in Evangelical and black churches.) What is causing this big change? One explanation is that fewer future-pastors are going into seminary right after college, and more are taking on the ministry as a second career, after retiring from a secular career.

4) The demographic make-up of congregations is changing. Overall, the average age of congregation members is increasing faster than the general population. For example, in 2006, 30 percent of the congregants were over age 60, but in 1998, only 25% were. Also, the racial and ethnic make-up of congregations is becoming more diverse. For example, from 1998 to 2006 the number of completely white congregations dropped from 20% to 14%.

Now, so far I have focused on the changes in American churches because, for some reason, discussing changes is more interesting than thinking about what stays the same; nonetheless, the study found a number of things that have stayed about the same over the past decade. They include the median size of congregations (about 75 people), the high number of women in the pews, the low number of women in the pulpit, and involvement in social services.

There, wasn’t that interesting, and you didn’t have to read a single regression coefficient. Maybe sociology journals just need to make themselves more accessible to the general public. I’m thinking more pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the cover?

(By the way, you get extra credit if you recognized the drummer pictured above).


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Joe Morello?

For the most part, what you said here is true. I am really glad that some of the changes you mentioned are taking place. Some of the most religious and conservative Americans may not like how church services have become "informal", but I really appreciate that fact! In all honesty, making services less formal and strict can actually benefit the religious community, by making church attendance more "attractive". By this, I mean that church will no longer be seen as something that is boring, uninteresting, or restrictive, especially in the eyes of younger, more urbane and liberal Americans. I also like how congregations are becoming more ethnically diverse, and this can attract more nonwhites in the future - this is something I am certainly noticing in the churches my family and I attend on Sunday mornings!

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