What is the Good News?

Easter reminds us to continue to hope—even when the evidence at hand doesn’t support that belief. We’ve been tracking the big trends for congregations for the past decade. We try to highlight the ways congregations show strength and resiliency. Let’s face it—it has been a difficult decade for churches and for our country. Is there any good news?

Congregations are doing more for their community and those in need. We used seven indicators to explore what worshipers were doing for others.

  • One in four worshipers (26%) were involved in social service or advocacy groups through their congregation back in 2001. By 2008, one in three worshipers (32%) reported involvement in such congregational efforts.
  • Slightly more worshipers (28%) said they were involved in social service or advocacy groups outside their congregation (for example, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross) back in 2001. The percentage of worshipers reporting involvement in community groups rose 14 percentage points (to 42%) by 2008!
  • Two out of three worshipers in 2001 (66%) said they contributed to a charitable group (other than their congregation), but by 2008, three out of four worshipers reported contributing to such groups.
  • More worshipers in 2008 than in 2001 valued their church’s (a) community care and advocacy efforts and (b) its openness to social diversity.
  • More worshipers also reported in 2008 that they worked with others to solve a community problem in the past year than did in 2001.
  • Finally, 84% of worshipers said they voted in the 2008 presidential election (up from 71% for the 2000 election).

Are these dramatic results “real” change between 2001 and 2008? Or do these percentages just show something that came up when worshipers in two different groups of churches were compared?

A small random sample of congregations participated in our research project back in 2001 and agreed to participate again in 2008. Information from this subset of churches provides a rare opportunity to look at real change over time—because the congregations are the same. When researchers draw new samples to track change, there is always the question of whether the observed change is due to different samples.

By analyzing the results from our repeating congregations, we can confirm that worshipers are doing more for others today than in 2001. The results for the smaller sample are slightly less dramatic but still statistically significant. Mainline Protestant worshipers especially led the way in increasing their engagement with others to make a difference for others in their community.

In a news report covering the damage from a recent tornado the anchor remarked, “The disaster relief efforts have been amazing. We’ve had some teams arrive even before the churches got here!” The statement points to the public perception that people in need can depend on churches and people of faith to take action in the face of disaster. Congregations and their worshipers have earned that reputation in community after community, year after year. That is good news!