The U.S. Congregational Life Survey


What is the U.S. Congregational Life Survey

Worshipers are what makes a congregation. And the attitudes, opinions, and perceptions of worshipers are essential to understanding congregations and religious life in the United States. Without focusing on worshipers we cannot identify a congregation's strengths or hope to find avenues for effective congregational change.

As part of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, about 300,000 worshipers in over 2,000 congregations in the United States completed a survey during worship services in April 2001. Worshipers in Australia, England, and New Zealand completed similar surveys. Together, the international effort included about 2 million worshipers and 17,000 congregations across three continents.

The purposes of the United States Congregational Life Survey are:

  • to develop resources that will help congregations better understand themselves, identify their strengths, and stimulate their efforts to create a positive future for themselves.
  • to develop resources that help congregations assess their ministries and relate more effectively with their communities
  • to provide a national and international congregational data base that will enable congregations to look at their ministries in relationship to denominational, national, and international benchmarks
  • to provide denominational leaders, congregational consultants, and congregational planners with information and resources to assist congregations

Participating congregations receive a profile of their worshipers, a check-up on several dimensions of congregational vitality (attracting new members, involvement in the community, and faith development, for example), and tools for identifying their strengths and planning for positive change.

Today, any congregation can take the survey to learn more about their worshipers and identify their strengths. [Learn how]

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List of participating denominations and faith groups

Over 2,000 congregations participated in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey in April 2001. The following denominations and faith groups were represented:

  • African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
  • American Baptist Churches USA
  • Assemblies of God
  • Bible Way Church, Worldwide
  • Buddhist Communities
  • Christian Reformed Church in North America
  • Christian and Missionary Alliances, The
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Church of God
  • Church of the Nazarene
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The
  • Church of God (Anderson, Indiana)
  • Church of God in Christ
  • Churches of Christ
  • Conservation Baptist Association of America
  • Conservative Judaism
  • Episcopal Church, The
  • Episcopal/Anglican
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • Foursquare Gospel, International Church of
  • Free Methodist Church of North America
  • Free Lutheran Congregations, The Association of
  • Free Will Baptist
  • General Association of Regular Baptist Church
  • General Council of Baptist (unspecified)
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America
  • Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod
  • Lutheran (unspecified)
  • Mennonite (unspecified)
  • Mennonite Church
  • Missionary
  • National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
  • Non-denominational congregations
  • Pentecostal (unspecified)
  • Presbyterian (unspecified)
  • Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
  • Presbyterian Church in America, The
  • Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
  • Reform Judaism
  • Roman Catholic Church
  • Seventh-day Adventist Church
  • Southern Baptist Convention
  • Unitarian Universalistic Association
  • United Methodist Church, The
  • United Baptist
  • United Church of Christ
  • Unity of the Brethren
  • United Pentecostal Church, International
  • Wesleyan Church, The
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What makes the U.S. Congregational Life Survey unique?


How is this picture different from what you've seen before?

We asked the opinions of leaders and worshipers

Most previous studies have relied on the views and opinions of clergy or a single lay leader in participating congregations and parishes. The U. S. Congregational Life Survey records the voices of 300,000 people who regularly invest in congregational life through their participation in worship. Together with information from clergy, their views are the definitive source of information about congregations and parishes. While clergy can relate much about what goes on in congregations, the perspectives of clergy or other key leaders and worshipers aren't always the same. We focused on the views from the pews in conducting this study.

The scale of the survey makes it unique

Over 300,000 worshipers in more than 2,000 congregations participated. A typical opinion survey — one by Gallup or another polling firm — would include only about 1,000 people chosen to be representative of the U.S. population. Such surveys are also limited to a short list of questions on a particular topic. Worshipers in this study completed a 4-page survey with 56 questions, so we have more detailed information about the opinions and religious practices of 350,000 worshipers.

All worshipers in participating congregations took part

In most research studies, worshipers are sampled across congregations so the results most often include just one person from each congregation. With all worshipers taking part, the results summarize what a congregation's worshipers as a group have to say about their experiences there. This strategy is equivalent to a "census" of worshipers during a typical week across America.

A large representative national sample of congregations and parishes participated in the study

Previous studies of congregational life have been based on small samples or in-depth case studies. Because congregations involved in these previous studies may not be typical, results are not representative of all congregations. A broad range of denominations and faith groups took part in the project, including non-denominational mega-churches and small independent groups. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey polled worshipers from every state across the country.

Four nations conducted parallel studies of worshipers

Similar surveys were conducted in England, Australia, and New Zealand involving 1.2 million worshipers from more than 100 denominations and about 12,000 congregations. A comparison of U.S. congregations with non-U.S. congregations highlights what is universal about faith communities as well as what is specific to a cultural context.

Congregational health and vitality are envisioned as more than numerical growth

Rather than relying on one measure of vitality, we investigated four fundamental areas of congregational life — spirituality and faith development; involvement in and connections to the congregation; community involvement; and future directions. Many researchers have examined congregations from the church-growth perspective. We used a multi-faceted approach that acknowledges that numerical growth is just one possible indicator of a vital congregation.

A snapshot of many congregations is used to scientifically describe what is "typical."

Too often, researchers, congregational consultants, and the media focus on large congregations or mega-churches, rapidly growing congregations, congregations with one-of-a-kind ministries, congregations in conflict, or congregations and parishes that are unique in some other way. This causes difficulties for leaders and attendees who attempt to apply the lessons in small or mid-size congregations, in declining or stable communities, or in other settings.

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Project timeline


In November 1998 the Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded a major grant to fund a national study of congregations in collaboration with an international effort.


During 1999, leaders in denominations and other religious organizations were contacted to gain their support and involvement in the project. We worked with our international partners to refine the survey and to pilot test both the survey and congregational reports in a wide range of congregations. A supplemental grant was also awarded by the Louisville Institute to support the project.


Congregations were selected and invited to participate during 2000. This included both congregations in the random sample and those sampled by participating denominations. Pilot testing of the survey and reports continued as we worked to finalize these materials near the end of the year.

During 2000, Dr. Jackson Carroll, Director of the Pulpit & Pew Project , Duke University, became a major collaborator for a study of key leaders in each participating congregation. This study is also funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.


  • January: Surveys were finalized and formatted so that automated scanning equipment will be able to quickly process all returned forms.
  • February: All surveys were delivered for printing. A total of 850,000 surveys were printed for distribution to congregations across the U.S.
  • March: Surveys and other materials were custom-packaged for each participating congregation. The package each congregation received included:
  • An overview of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey for congregations, including instructions for returning completed surveys Instructions for giving the survey during worship.

    Enough survey forms so that all worshipers 15 years and up in all worship services could participate.

    Pens for use in completing the survey.

    A Congregational Profile for use in collecting factual information about the congregation's facilities, worship services, staff, and programs.

    Some congregations also received a Leader Survey to be completed by the senior minister, pastor, priest, or rabbi or other key congregational leader (others received this survey in a later mailing or were contacted by phone to answer these questions).

  • April 12: On April 12, 2001 all packages were picked up in Louisville, Kentucky and shipped to participating congregations.
  • April 29: Worshipers in participating congregations around the world completed the worship service questionnaire during survey week: April 29, 2001.
  • May: Starting on Wednesday, May 2, 2001, Fed Ex picked up boxes of completed surveys from participating congregations. Our staff spent most of May opening boxes, checking in responses, and packaging surveys to be sent to our scanning firm. We have completed surveys from over 2,000 congregations!
  • June through December: During this period :
  • Returned attendee surveys were scanned.

    Leader surveys and Congregational Profiles were prepared for traditional data entry and our data entry firm worked long and hard on that huge stack of surveys.

    By the fall, all of our data files were completed, and we began combining files for each congregation, tabulating results, and seeing what we have learned.

    We also completed writing a book, A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations , that was published in April 2002 by Westminster John Knox Press. The Field Guide to U.S. Congregations summarizes the national survey results. Each participating congregation received one copy of the book for free.

    We worked with programmers to design and set-up a system to produce customized, 8-page, color reports for each participating congregation showing their results. After pilot-testing the reports with a number of congregations, we made final changes to incorporate their suggestions.

    We produced and pilot-tested a short, 23-minute video that each congregation also received. The video helps congregations understand and use their results.


  • Customized Connections Reports PDF icon and videos were sent to all 2,000 congregations that took the survey in April 2001. We started printing, packaging, and mailing reports in February, and completed this process by the end of April.
  • A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why was published by Westminster John Knox Press in April 2002. It summarizes the study findings. When we received our copies from the publisher, we mailed each participating congregation a copy of the book, along with a poster showing 12 key findings from the project.
  • We began working on programming for additional congregational reports. These show the congregation's responses in comparison, not to the national average, but to a different comparison group. One type of comparison is to other congregations within major denominations (e.g., Catholic, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Church of the Nazarene). With comparison reports like these, a Methodist congregation can see how their worshipers' responses compare to those of worshipers in other Methodist congregations. The other type of comparison is to congregations of similar size. A small congregation could compare its responses to those of other small congregations; a medium-sized congregation, to other medium-sized congregations; and a large congregation to other large congregations.
  • We began working with other congregations that are interested in taking the survey and learning how they compare to the national average. The conduct your own survey section will help you learn how your congregation can be part of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.
  • Finally, we designed and tested the second report that each participating congregation will receive. The second report gives additional information to help your congregation better understand your survey results.


  • We worked with programmers to design the second set of congregational reports and completed the second book that will illuminate our continuing work on the survey results. Beyond the Ordinary is scheduled for release in January 2004.
  • Strength reports PDF icon were printed and mailed to congregations. Each congregation received a personalized 10-page Strengths Report. The first reports were mailed in late October. The package included a video to help understand and use the Strengths Report and a Leader Guide, written by Herb Miller.


  • Beyond the Ordinary: Ten Strengths of U.S. Congregations was released by Westminster John Knox Press in January. Each participating congregation received a copy of the book at that time.


We continued analyzing the data and releasing results (articles on the Web site, research publications, presentations, etc.). The survey is available to any congregation that wants to take it, and we did some PR and advertising to promote that. We also worked with a number of presbyteries and as they have offered the survey as a tool for their congregations.

Work began on a third book that will explore the relationship between congregational location and vitality. It will examine the community around each congregation and its impact on the congregation's strengths.



  • Analysis and writing for the third U.S. Congregational Life Survey book, Places of Promise: Finding Strength in Your Congregation's Location were completed. The book is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2007.
  • We continued working with judicatories and denominations as they offered the survey to their congregations, and we did other dissemination and promotional work.



In 2007 we will begin preparing resources to accompany the new book, Places of Promise: Finding Strength in Your Congregation's Location.

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