Spiritual experiences in worship tied to increased giving

Every congregation needs cheerful givers.

Yet many religious leaders gear their services to the intellect of worshipers, placing more emphasis on scholarly sermons than the emotional experiences that transcendent worship can offer.

That approach could be costly, a new study indicates.

Worshipers who experience a sense of awe or mystery and other positive emotions such as joy and inspiration during services are more likely to fill the collection plate, suggests a new study analyzing data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

And it was not just Pentecostal and other evangelical congregations that reap the benefits.

The study findings suggest that, “It is possible for mainline liturgical congregations to increase their giving if they address the emotional needs of their flocks,” Baylor University researcher Katie Corcoran said.

Corcoran explored a sample of 344 congregations and more than 46,000 attendees from the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey. She developed an “emotional energy” measure based on answers to questions about experiences from a sense of God’s presence and joy to negative feelings such a boredom and frustration during worship to study the relation between emotion and congregational giving.

Consistent with past research, Corcoran found factors such as more frequent religious attendance and having close friends in the congregation associated with higher giving.

She also found, however, that the more positive emotional energy worshipers experience, the more likely they are to increase giving. Giving also increases when the overall level of positive emotion in the congregation is higher, Corcoran found.

Even attenders with relatively low levels of emotional energy give more in congregations where the people around them have high levels of positive emotion, Corcoran found.

“This study suggests that congregations can increase the proportion of income their members donate by structuring their rituals to promote positive emotional experiences,” Corcoran writes.

The potential appears to be there.

Overall, the US CLS indicates congregations are doing fairly well at meeting many of the needs of people in the pews.

The 2008-2009 US CLS, for example, found that 81 percent of worshipers always or usually experienced a sense of God’s presence during worship and 75 percent experienced joy. Six percent or fewer experienced boredom or frustration during services.

Just three in 10 worshipers, however, reported always or usually experiencing a sense of awe and mystery. And, of course, the results do not take into account people who may be missing from worship because their needs are not being met.

Corcoran said the study suggests the value of congregations being aware of the emotional experiences of community members, and which practices seem to best meet those needs.

It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, she said. In one congregation, some members may find contemporary music heightens their spiritual experience. In another congregation, or among different members in the same congregation, hymns may be of special value, she said.

Since emotional energy is something that builds over time and can wane when it is no longer present, the challenge also is to keep the positive experiences flowing.

Still, all that work may not only energize the community, but improve the bottom line.

In the end, the church that laughs and cries together appears to give more together.