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The Washington Times

The state of grace: Small churches face challenges

Larry Witham

Published 5/8/2002

     American worship is lopsided toward small congregations, fewer men in the pews, a once-a-week gathering and few newcomers at the service, a national survey shows.
     These are the four greatest challenges facing U.S. houses of worship, according to a study that interviewed 300,000 worshippers in 2,200 congregations.
      "Not all congregations face each of the challenges," the Congregational Life Survey reported this week. "Many do."
     The project, which collected data from congregations of all faiths in 50 states, found that half of all houses of worship add up to just 11 percent of all worshippers.
     "This is probably the most profound reality facing congregations today," the report said. "Most congregations are small."
     The report points to a growing social gap between the many small sanctuaries and the large ones. Large congregations are just 10 percent of all the 300,000 houses of worship in the United States but draw half of all worshippers.
     Smaller congregations may face further declines in funding, supply of clergy and religious education, the study says.
     The study also confirmed more precisely what everyone suspected: Men make up just 39 percent of the pew population.
     Moreover, it found that 56 percent of all congregation members limit their activity to weekend worship. And just 46 percent of worshippers invited another person in the past 12 months.
      "Most worshippers are not involved in small groups in their congregation," the study said. Also, "in an entire year, most people did not invite even one person."
     The study otherwise was optimistic about the nation's churches, synagogues and temples.
     "All the congregations were happy to be part of a historic study," said Cynthia Woolever, head of the study and a sociologist on staff with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). "This is very good research."
     On the bright side, the report said it dispelled several myths about congregation life, such as that most worshippers are retirees or that congregations lack forces for change.
     The largest bloc of worshippers (66 percent) are ages 24 to 64, the study found. Ten percent of worshippers are from 15 to 24 years old, and many congregations have active youth programs.
      What is more, the study found that one-third of all worshippers have been members for five years or less. "With the inflow of new people comes the potential of new ideas and new energy," it said.
      The findings, issued in press packets titled "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations," and a Web site ( is part of a massive project to study American religion and bolster its future.
     All of the projects, funded by the Lilly Endowment and carried out by theology schools and church agencies, use National Opinion Research Center methods.
     A related project, "Pulpit and Pew," surveyed clergy related to the representative congregation sample.
     On Ms. Woolever's project, researchers surveyed worshippers at the 2,200 congregations. One questionnaire gleaned data on resources and programs and another on worshipper attitudes and behaviors, or "views from the pews."
     The study acknowledged that only 45 percent of Americans identify as members of a denomination and that as little as 20 percent of the U.S. population worships on a given weekend.

Copyright © 2002 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

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