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Massive Survey Looks at Religious Life at Local Church Level


c. 2002 Religion News Service
(Ed. note: Photo to accompany this article is available from RNS Today. To download photos from the RNS photo Web site, call 800-767-6781.)

(UNDATED) The Rev. Chris Schriner expected a new national survey would show that his Unitarian congregation did not fit into the typical national picture of congregational life.

But, it turned out, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey told him it's very similar in some ways. Just like other houses of worship, his Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, Calif., is attended by more women than men -- 62 percent to 38 percent, almost identical figures to national numbers.

On the other hand, the survey demonstrated his congregation's musical interests diverged from the norm. Fifty-four percent chose songs from a variety of cultures as their favorite kind of musical expression, vastly more than the 9 percent nationally.

Schriner said the survey results may prompt him to ask his 90 congregants to turn to different pages in their Unitarian Universalist hymnal, which includes a wide range of cultural music.

"Now that I see this on paper, I'm likely to use the resources of that hymnal even better," he said.

Results like these -- hard numbers that can be turned into practical changes within congregations -- were one of the aims of the survey conducted in April 2001 in more than 2,000 congregations across the country.

More than 300,000 people in houses of worship ranging from Christian to Jewish to Buddhist were asked to fill out questionnaires for the survey funded by the Lilly Endowment. Many of its initial results were published in April in "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why" (Westminster John Knox Press).

"A lot of other studies will get a random sample by calling on the phone," said Deborah Bruce, project manager of the survey and co-author of the book with Cynthia Woolever. "By giving it in worship, we knew that these were people who were actively involved in congregations."

Bruce, who works with Woolever in the research services office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said the study results confirmed researchers' hunches about some aspects of congregational life -- such as the predominance of women -- but also highlighted future challenges for clergy and lay leaders.

One of the key findings was that one-third of worshippers have attended their congregation for five years or less.

Bruce said that statistic reflects, in part, the mobility of American society, with many leaving one location for another due to a job, educational pursuits or marriage. But it also reflects an ongoing spiritual search by some worshippers.

"I think there's at least a segment of society that is on a continuous search, trying to find something that really speaks to them, that really fulfills their spiritual need," she said.

Another striking statistic was that 10 percent of U.S. congregations attract 50 percent of all who worship in a given week.

"It's almost a paradox that most congregations in the U.S. are small, but most people go to large congregations," Bruce said. "It's a challenge in terms of leadership as well because ... the people who are interested in becoming clergy are coming from large congregations."

But, she said, most of the available jobs are in rural and small-town congregations, many of which have difficulty finding clergy willing to locate in their communities.

U.S. researchers collaborated with others in Australia, England and New Zealand and learned that some of their findings were universal. For instance, across all of those countries, worshippers are more educated than the general population. In the United States, 38 percent of worshippers have a college degree or other higher education, compared to 23 percent of the U.S. population.

Participating congregations received individualized results, which clergy say will help them as they make plans.

The Rev. Michael Shirey, associate pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Ill., said the data may prompt his congregation to reconsider its worship styles.

The survey found that 41 percent of his 512-member congregation is between the ages of 45 and 64. At present, with another 40 percent between the ages of 25 and 44, the church has two blended services, incorporating traditional and contemporary elements in the liturgy.

"We're going to want on the front end of it to have services that appeal to a younger crowd, but we're also going to want to have a service that appeals to the older demographic," he said.

The survey also proved to be an affirmation for clergy like Shirey. Eighty-four percent of his congregants said they feel their spiritual needs are being met, a percentage similar to the national finding.

He said the survey results will be combined with the congregation's study of its future direction as it makes plans to find a successor for a recently retired pastor.

"The kind of statistical data that the survey gathered is not something we do in the normal run of things," he said. "It really is valuable to have that kind of data to look at and work from."

NEWS SIDEBAR: Key Findings on Local Church Life
c. 2002 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Here are the key findings of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey:

  • One-third of worshippers have attended their congregations for five years or less.
  • Ten percent of U.S. congregations attract 50 percent of all worshippers each week.
  • Less than half of worshippers (44 percent) are involved in small groups in their congregation, such as religious education classes or prayer circles.
  • Women outnumber men in the pews by 61 percent to 39 percent.
  • Nineteen percent of worshippers contribute 10 percent or more of their net income to their congregation.
  • Nineteen percent of worshippers say they are involved in community service through their congregation, compared to 31 percent who say they are involved through groups outside the congregation.
  • Thirty-eight percent of worshippers have a college degree or other higher education, compared to 23 percent of the U.S. population.
Source: U.S. Congregational Life Survey

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