Most previous studies have relied on the views and opinions of clergy or a single lay leader in participating congregations and parishes. The U. S. Congregational Life Survey records the voices of people who regularly invest in congregational life through their participation in worship. Together with information from clergy, their views are the definitive source of information about congregations and parishes. While clergy can relate much about what goes on in congregations, the perspectives of clergy or other key leaders and those of worshipers aren’t always the same. We focused on the views from the pews in conducting this study.
Over 500,000 worshipers in more than 5,000 congregations have participated. A typical opinion survey — one by Gallup or another polling firm — would include only about 1,000 people chosen to be representative of the U.S. population. Such surveys are also limited to a short list of questions on a particular topic. Worshipers in this study completed a 4-page survey with 56 questions, so we have more detailed information about the opinions and religious practices of thousands of worshipers.
In most research studies, worshipers are sampled across congregations so the results most often include just one person from each congregation. With all worshipers taking part, the results summarize what a congregation’s worshipers as a group have to say about their experiences there. This strategy is equivalent to a “census” of worshipers during a typical week across America.
Previous studies of congregational life have been based on small samples or in-depth case studies. Because congregations involved in these previous studies may not be typical, results are not representative of all congregations. A broad range of denominations and faith groups took part in the project, including non-denominational mega-churches and independent groups and congregations, and non-Christian faith communities. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey polled worshipers from every state across the country.
The original 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey was replicated in the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2009. Comparing responses of worshipers allows a unique opportunity to identify the stability and changes of religious life in this country.
Rather than relying on one measure of vitality, we investigated four fundamental areas of congregational life — spirituality and faith development; involvement in and connections to the congregation; community involvement; and future directions. Many researchers have examined congregations from the church-growth perspective. We used a multi-faceted approach that acknowledges that numerical growth is just one possible indicator of a vital congregation.
Too often, researchers, congregational consultants, and the media focus on large congregations or mega-churches, rapidly growing congregations, congregations with one-of-a-kind ministries, congregations in conflict, or congregations and parishes that are unique in some other way. This causes difficulties for leaders and attendees who attempt to apply the lessons in small or mid-size congregations, in declining or stable communities, or in other settings.