The 2006-07 National Congregations Study is a major survey of a nationally representative sample of 1506 congregations from all over the United States. It documents the work, programs, activities, and changes of America's religious congregations. Researchers gathered this information by interviewing one knowledgeable leader from each congregation included in the study either by phone or face-to-face.
The 2006-07 Wave II of the NCS looked at many of the same subjects examined in the 1998 study. The 2006-07 study also examined new subjects that were not examined in 1998. Additionally 262 congregations were surveyed in both waves of the NCS. This "panel format" allowed Wave II to examine stability and change in these congregations since 1998. Wave II data were gathered between May 2006 and April 2007. This wave also included a Spanish language questionnaire for use with Spanish-speaking congregational leaders.
|Wave 2 Questionnaire||Combined Codebook for Waves I and 2|
| MS Word|| MS Word|
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One of the great things about replicating an earlier study is that it can identify continuity and change among American congregations. We are mindful that nine years is not a long time, and that a change between 1998 and 2006-07 may wind up in hindsight to represent an unusual moment rather than a long-term trend. Two data points is not the firmest possible hook on which to hang a trend. Nevertheless, the 1998 NCS gives us a baseline, and the 2006-07 NCS enables us to begin to track change.
First, the important continuity between 1998 and 2006-07:
In less than a decade, we expected to see few changes in the basic contours of American congregations. This expectation was indeed borne out, with no change since 1998 in average size, internal conflict that led some people to leave the congregation, over-representation of women, extent of political activity (with the exception of participation in voter registration efforts, which has increased), percent of congregations led by women, involvement in social services, and other characteristics.
Some of this continuity might come as a surprise, for instance .
- Even though the number of megachurches continues to increase, and a trend towards increasing concentration of people in the largest churches continues as well, the median congregation is the same size today as it was in 1998 (75 regular participants). Likewise, the median person still attends a congregation that is the same size as it was in 1998 (400 regular participants).
- Even though conflicts within American religion over ordaining homosexuals have received a lot of attention in recent years, and seem to be tearing some denominations apart, the overall level of conflict within congregations is about what it was in 1998, with 26 percent of congregations experiencing a conflict in the last 2 years that led some people to leave. (Interestingly, only 2 percent of congregations in the NCS-II reported a conflict over homosexuality.)
- Even though both major political parties continue their efforts to mobilize congregations, congregations in 2006-07 report approximately the same levels of involvement in a variety of political activities that they reported in 1998.
- And even after the Bush administration’s "faith-based initiative," there is no increase since 1998 in the extent of congregational involvement in social services, in the percent of congregations receiving public funds in support of their social service work, or in the extent of congregations’ collaborations with government.
Second, even in the midst of substantial continuity, four kinds of important change are evident:
Of everything that was measured in both waves of the NCS, far and away what changed most was congregations’ use of computer technology. The number of congregations with websites increased from 18 percent in 1998 to 44 percent in 2006-07. The number using email to communicate with members increased from 22 percent to 60 percent. And the number using visual projection equipment in their main worship service increased from 12 percent to 27 percent. These are very large increases in such a short period of time. They imply, for example, that each year since 1998 another 10,000 congregations created a web site. Seventy-four percent of attendees are now in a congregation with a website, 79 percent are in a congregation that communicates with members via email, and 32 percent are in a congregation using visual projection equipment in the main worship service.
These dramatic increases indicate that congregations are, like individuals and institutions elsewhere in our society, enthusiastically embracing new information technologies. It may not be surprising to learn that congregations are riding this wave, but the dramatic increase in the adoption of these technologies raises important questions for congregations, as it does for other institutions in the society.
A second trend evident in these data is increased informality in worship. The NCS asked a series of questions about each congregation’s most recent main worship service. Fifteen of these questions were repeated in both waves. For each element whose use could be interpreted as indicating more or less formality or informality, if there is change since 1998 it is in the informal direction.
More worship services today, compared with just 9 years ago, contain drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, calling out amen, visual projection equipment, and testifying by people other than leaders. Fewer services include choirs or a written order of service. None of this change is dramatic, but recall that we are looking at change only since 1998. That short time span and the consistency of the pattern across this set of worship elements increase our confidence that this is a real trend, and an impressive one.
Most of this increasing informality is occurring among Protestants-Catholic churches have increased only in the use of visual projection equipment and drums-and all of the increase in jumping, shouting, and dancing is among black churches. Overall, however, there seems to be a fairly general trend at work here, and probably one that partakes of a broader trend in American culture towards informality.
This trend in worship style also may reflect the continuation of a very long-term trend in American religion away from religious styles that appeal to the intellect in favor of religious styles that appeal to the emotions, away from religion based on claims about what is true in favor of religion based on pragmatic claims about what religion can do for you or how it can make you feel. Whatever is behind this trend, its significance for American religious culture and institutions bears closer examination.
Perhaps most significant of the characteristics of those who lead congregations (meaning head clergy in multi-staff congregations, sole clergy in single-staff congregations, or the person named as the religious leader in congregations without a clergyperson), congregational leaders are older, on average, than they were in 1998. The median age of head clergy in American congregations has increased from 49 in 1998 to 53 in 2006. This seems like a large change in only 9 years.
By way of comparison, the average age of the American public (limiting attention only to the over-25 population) has increased 1 year since 1998, from 47.5 to 48.5. And the percent of people in congregations led by someone 50 or younger has declined from 48 percent in 1998 to 39 percent today.
This aging of clergy is happening across the religious spectrum, though it is happening faster for Catholic and liberal/mainline congregations than for others. The average age of head clergy in liberal/mainline congregations increased 6 years since 1998, from 49 to 55; among clergy in predominantly African American congregations, median age increased only 2 years. It appears that the increasing number of second-career clergy and the simultaneous decline in the number of people going to seminary immediately after college are combining to produce a rather rapidly aging American pastorate.
The American pastorate also is becoming increasingly minority. Today, 27 percent of head clergy are black or Hispanic, up from 22 percent in 1998. Unlike the aging of clergy, which is happening across the board, this increase is almost entirely concentrated in Catholic churches. Probably reflecting the increasing presence of immigrant priests in U.S. parishes, 13 percent of Catholic churches are now led by black or Hispanic priests, compared to only 1 percent in 1998.
Member and Community Demographics
The largest change in the social composition of congregations concerns income: people in congregations make more money today than they did in 1998. In 1998, 20 percent of the people in the congregation attended by the average attender had annual household incomes below $25,000; in 2006-07, only 10 percent were in such low-income households. In 1998, only 5 percent of people in the congregation attended by the average attender had annual household incomes above $100,000; that number doubled to 10 percent in 2006-07. There also is a small but noticeable increase in the percent of attenders who have 4-year college degrees.
From another perspective, however, these shifts represent no change at all. They do not take inflation into account, and they mirror very closely income and education trends in the general population. These increases do not mean, therefore, that American religion has moved up the social class ladder in the last decade. Rather than representing the upward mobility of American religion, these results suggest instead that American congregations are today situated in the social class structure much as they were situated in 1998.
We observe change in the age make-up of American congregations. In the average congregation, 30 percent of the people are older than 60, compared with 25 percent in 1998. And, while the average person still attends a congregation in which one quarter of the adults are younger than 35, the average congregation now has only 20 percent of its people who are that young, compared with 25 percent in 1998. Older people are, of course, over-represented in American congregations, and young adults are under-represented, but these changes probably are produced by a combination of increasing longevity and declining participation in congregations by young adults.
We also see alteration in the ethnic make-up of American congregations. Although there are not more predominantly black or Latino or Asian congregations than there were in 1998, more predominantly white congregations have some Latino or Asian presence than in 1998. Stated another way, predominantly white and non-Hispanic congregations are somewhat less white and non-Hispanic than they were in 1998. The number of people in congregations with no Latinos, for example, decreased from 43 percent in 1998 to 36 percent in 2006-07. The number with no Asians decreased from 59 percent to 50 percent. The number with no recent immigrants decreased from 61 percent to 49 percent. Looking at this same phenomenon from the other direction, the number of people in congregations that are completely white and non-Hispanic decreased from 20 percent in 1998 to 14 percent in 2006-07.
Thus, the recent wave of immigration to the United States is clearly reflected in congregations’ social composition. The most visible impact of this immigration on American congregations since 1998, however, seems to be that it has made predominantly white congregations somewhat more ethnically diverse rather than dramatically increasing the number of congregations predominantly composed of Latinos, Asians, or immigrants of whatever nationality. Perhaps this represents a shift in the impact of post-1965 immigration on American religion from an earlier phase in which the main impact was the emergence of predominantly immigrant congregations to a current phase in which the main impact, beyond replenishing the immigrant congregations created earlier, is to increase ethnic diversity within predominantly white congregations.
These same broad societal developments also are affecting the neighborhoods in which congregations are situated. Although it still is the case that 10 percent of religious service attenders go to a congregation located in a census tract in which at least 30 percent of the residents are poor, the number in congregations located in tracts where more than half the residents have some college education has increased from 35 percent in 1998 to 49 percent in 2006-07. The number of people whose congregations are in tracts in which at least 5 percent of the residents are Hispanic increased from 29 percent to 40 percent; the number in tracts in which at least 5 percent of the residents have immigrated since 1980 doubled from 15 percent to 31 percent. In addition to increasing educational attainment and immigration, the long term depopulation of rural areas also is reflected here: the number of people whose congregations are in rural census tracts declined from 23 percent in 1998 to 18 percent in 2006-07.
Overall, the demographic changes evident among congregations’ people and neighborhoods mirror demographic changes in the American population as a whole. The social space in which congregations exist has changed since 1998, and congregations’ demographic composition has changed with it. It does not appear, however, that congregations have repositioned themselves within this social space. If a congregation is a boat floating on the sea of people in the society, congregations have changed demographically mainly because they have floated with the currents and the tides, not because they have traveled to a different part of the sea.
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