Different Congregations, Different Views of the Divine

In an earlier blog post we shared how there is significant diversity within congregations concerning whether worshipers believe God is actively involved in the world or angered by human sin. In many congregations, fellow worshipers may not hold similar views of God.

This finding raises a related question: what types of congregations have more worshipers who believe God is actively involved in the world, or angered by human sin? Does a small congregation of highly educated individuals located on the east coast view God differently than a megachurch in the south?

Findings from the 2008 U.S. Congregational Life Survey show a number of congregational traits are related to how many worshipers view God as actively involved in the world or angered by human sin.

First, there is a strong education effect. Even when holding religious tradition, region, and the congregation’s theological and political stances constant, if the average level of education in a congregation is high, fewer worshipers will view God as actively involved or angered by human sin. The figure below illustrates this relationship.

Chart for Different Views of God

If the average education level of a congregation is near the high school end of the spectrum, over 65 percent of the congregation will view God as actively involved in the world. Over 55 percent will view God as angry over human sin. However, if most worshipers have earned a graduate degree, the percent of congregants that view God as active or angered by human sin falls to close to 25 percent.

How a congregation’s worshipers view the Bible matters, too. The following figure shows that as the percentage of people who believe the Bible should be read literally rises, the percentage of worshipers who view God as angered by human sin or actively involved in the world rises as well.

Chart for Different Views of God2

Here we see that beliefs about the word of God are strongly connected to beliefs about God in congregations.

A final figure illustrates an additional finding. Congregations that involve a high number of worshipers in prayer, discussion, or Bible study groups tend to have more worshipers who hold each of these views of God.

Chart for Different Views of God3

Measuring small group involvement shows us the level of interconnectedness of worshipers within a congregation. People involved in small groups do not just show up on Sunday and avoid interacting with those around them. Rather, they spend time outside of the Sunday worship service with fellow worshipers. As the figure above shows, congregations filled with individuals who are actively involved in each other’s lives tend to view God as actively involved in the world, and angered by human sin.

Beyond education, beliefs about the Bible, and involvement in small groups, data from the2008 U.S. Congregational Life Survey show the following as well:

  •  Congregations that identify as “politically liberal” have fewer worshipers who view God as active or angered by human sin.
  •  Larger congregations have more individuals who view God as actively involved in the world.
  •  Congregations in the east and west regions of the United States have fewer worshipers who view God as angered by human sin compared to congregations in the south.

When inspecting the religious mosaic of the United States, we find that views of God differ dramatically between and within congregations. Vital to these differences are the demographics, religious beliefs, and religious behavior of worshipers.

At least for now, this means that the small congregation on the east coast has a considerably different image of God than the megachurch in the south.