Myth 1: Congregations affiliated with the major denominations are uniformly spread across the country.

Many people think that—because every American community has Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, etc.—every congregation operates in the same context. Not so!

Dispersion: Of 149 major U.S. religious bodies, only 20 denominational groups (including
Muslims and Jews) reported adherents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Concentration: But many of these 20 groups’ adherents are highly concentrated geographically. All 20 groups report that at least half of their adherents live in just 10 states. Note the major differences in dispersion and concentration:

  • United Methodists and Assemblies of God are the least concentrated (54% of their adherents reside in just 10 states).
  • Other groups are slightly more concentrated—Nazarenes and Presbyterians (57% and 58% of adherents, respectively, reside in just 10 states).
  • Much more concentrated than other groups are Catholics and Southern Baptists (69% and 74% of adherents, respectively, reside in just 10 states).
  • Jews are most concentrated (82% of adherents reside in just 10 states), with Mormons following close behind (78% of adherents reside in just 10 states).

The dispersion-concentration factor influences how adherents feel: Adherents in low-concentration areas of “our denomination” can feel like outsiders in an alien culture—think about someone who is Jewish and lives in Georgia compared to someone who is Catholic living in an area dominated by Catholics. At the same time, such a “minority” status may fuel a strong, distinctive congregational identity that clarifies ministry focus.

The dispersion-concentration factor can also influence congregational programs and strategies.  Adult Sunday school is more common in all types of churches in the South in part because Southern Baptists—with an emphasis on adult education—are plentiful there.  Similarly mainline congregations in areas with many Catholic parishes are more likely to offer multiple services.  Their worshipers come to expect such options because their Catholic friends have them.

In what ways does your part of the country influence how worshipers feel about their affiliation with your congregation?