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Survey Explodes Myths About Churchgoers

By FLO JOHNSTON 419-6638

The Herald-Sun

A new survey, touted as the largest and most representative profile of worshipers and their congregations ever conducted in the United States, explodes some long-held myths and shows among its many findings that worshippers are much better educated than the average American.

-- Thirty-eight percent of worshippers in the survey have college degrees, compared to 23 percent for the U.S. population.

-- The average age of a U.S. worshipper is 50 years, compared to the national average age of 35.

-- Eighty-three percent of the people in the pews attend worship services every week or almost every week, and on any given day, average worship attendance is about 50 percent of a congregation's membership.

-- People attend worship at locations not far from home. Half of all participants said the trip takes 10 minutes or less. 88 percent can travel from home to their houses of worship in less than 20 minutes.

The results of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey were released this week and reflect the answers of 300,000 worshippers in more than 2,000 congregations. Responses came from 50 different denominations and faith groups, as well as nondenominational mega-churches, small independent groups, Buddhist communities and Jewish congregations. The survey polled worshippers from all 50 states.

''Congregations will be able to use the findings to identify their strengths in comparison to other congregations and to plan for the future in ways that fit their unique situation,'' said Deborah A. Bruce, associate research manager.

''The survey had two purposes,'' she said, ''to get an accurate picture of the religious landscape at the beginning of a new century and to develop tools for congregations to deal with the findings.''

Church members and church leaders were included and the surveys were filled out by actual worshippers who took about 20 minutes during a service to answer questions. Most of the surveys were completed in 2001 and the database was pulled together by the end of the year.

Bruce said that the survey results shattered several myths about U.S. worshippers. Among the popular notions found not to be true:

-- Congregations have a hard time adapting to a changing world because most worshippers are not open to change.

Most worshippers in the survey, 61 percent, say they are quite willing to try new things and more than half of them (51 percent) believe their congregations are already moving in new directions.

-- Because worshipers are so deeply involved in their congregations, they aren't very active in their communities.

Not so say survey results. Almost half of all worshipers are involved in community service, social service or advocacy groups. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of all worshipers say they voted in the most recent presidential election.

Some of the most interesting findings have to do with the way congregations grow.

First, the survey establishes that there is a high turnover rate in the average congregation with one of every three worshipers new to the congregation. New is defined as having attended for five years or less.

A notion popular among congregations seeking to grow their membership is that they must attract people who have not been attending services anywhere before. And although this is the evangelistic mentality, the survey shows these efforts have not been very successful.

Results show that 57 percent of new people are transfers from other congregations of the same denomination or faith traditions. Only 7 percent are getting involved in a congregation for the first time ever. And only 18 percent of the new people are coming back to a faith community after staying away for a while. The remaining 18 percent are switchers from one denomination or faith tradition to another.

A copy of the book based on the national survey A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who’s Going Where and Why is available from Westminster John Knox Press, 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, KY 40202. Phone (800) 227-2872. Visit the Web site for more information.

The survey was conducted by from the offices of the Presbyterian Church USA in Louisville, Ky., by U.S. Congregations, a research group. The project was funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Lilly Endowment with additional support from the Presbyterian Church USA and the Pulpit and Pew Project at Duke University.

Copyright 2002, The Herald-Sun

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