Who Is Experiencing the Most Joy in Worship?

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey contains rare data on the emotions experienced by congregations during their services.  This information has been extremely useful in my work as a sociologist of religion.  I typically focus on a few main research questions inspired by the sociologist Emile Durkheim.  Whether observing worship services, interviewing members, or analyzing survey data, I look for evidence of positive emotions and feelings of membership, indicators of what Durkheim called “collective effervescence” and “social solidarity.”  For instance:

  • Is there a formula for generating enthusiasm in worship services?  Is it possible to identify a small set of factors that, when in place, will more or less guarantee collective excitement?
  • To what extent do emotionally-stimulating rituals foster feelings of membership?  Related, does enthusiastic worship help a congregation achieve its broader goals?

A good general starting point for investigating these sorts of questions is to consider how services in different traditions and denominations compare in terms of worshippers’ experience of joy.  The next two graphs provide some evidence.

For each denomination or tradition, I’ve displayed the average scores of all the individuals within that category.  The number of congregations analyzed from each category is in parentheses.  For the denominations graph, I only included denominations which provided relevant data from 5 or more congregations.



As I mentioned, these findings are a good general starting point.  There are all kinds of reasons, though, why it is a bad idea to hastily jump to conclusions about what they imply.  First, the number of observations varies greatly in each category.  For instance, only 5 Jewish congregations are represented, making the data from Jewish congregations less reliable than, for example, data from 47 Methodist congregations.  Not to mention, the small number of Jewish congregations prohibits further examination of any differences based on whether congregations are Reformed, Conservative, or Orthodox.  Similarly, there are only 7 black Protestant churches in the sample.  With more observations from each tradition, it is likely that their average frequency of joy in worship would move closer to the average for all of the churches studied (3.04).

Second, other factors not examined here may be influencing things.  For example, these numbers don’t take into account the size of the congregation, the frequency at which members attend services, or the average age of members.  Also, some traditions may talk a lot about the importance of, say, “reverence” or “contemplation” instead of “joy.”  In some cases, these figures may reflect differences in what denominations are trying to accomplish.

Still, as an initial look at rituals and emotions, the findings are intriguing and prompt new lines of inquiry.  For example, notice the relationship between joy and the average income of congregants.  The next bar graphs show the same data on joy as the graphs I showed above, but I’ve added bars indicating the average income levels of respondents within each tradition/denomination.   Income was reported in the following manner: 1 = less than $10,000; 2 = $10k-24,999; 3 = $25k-49,999; 4 = $50k-74,999; 5 = $75k-99,999; and 6 = greater than $100,000.



The graph showing traditions, joy, and income is a good example of an “inverse” relationship.  As average income in a congregation goes up, the frequency with which respondents experience joy goes down.  As income goes down, the frequency of joy goes up.  The graph showing denominations, joy, and income shows a very similar pattern.  There are a couple of exceptions to the rule.  Based on their joy levels, I would have expected the United Church of Christ to have a higher average income, and Southern Baptists to have a lower average income.  Otherwise, both graphs show a clear inverse relationship.

Over 150 years ago, Karl Marx argued that religion is the “opium of the masses,” and “the sigh of the oppressed creature.”  Religion, for Marx, was a way to cope with exploitation and poverty.  You don’t have to be a Marxist, though, to see why those with worse financial means urgently depend on worship.  Hardship batters the emotions.  Worship, when effective, rejuvenates.

I once attended a Sunday morning service at a black Protestant church in a poor section of a Texas town.  The service followed a funeral that had been held the day before for a well-liked teenager from the community who had been shot and killed in a gang-style multiple-shooting.  The congregation of about 100 was still shaken, and yet I consider this service one of the most joyful I have witnessed.  For over three hours, the congregation danced, hugged, shouted, laughed, and cried.  By the end of the service, everyone was holding hands, swaying, and singing “Amazing Grace.”  Tears ran freely.

Afterwards, members informed me that this was what their services always were like.  They talked about how the world is “hard,” life is “sad,” and “Satan is busy.”  But they insisted that they always “feel overjoyed” and “uplifted” after church on Sunday.  There was a clear relationship between the adversity of their day-to-day lives and the renewal they experience, without fail, every Sunday.


Scott Draper is an assistant professor of Sociology at the College of Idaho.  His research deals with rituals and emotions in religious congregations, and he is currently working on a book on the topic.