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New Research in Congregations: National Congregations Study, Wave 3

The results from the latest version of the National Congregations Study are now available. The National Congregations Study (NCS) covers many topics, so their article  limits the discussion of the changing religious landscape on five issues: “more ethnic diversity, more acceptance of gays and lesbians, increasingly informal worship styles, declining size (but not from the perspective of the average attendee), and declining denominational affiliation” (Chaves and Anderson forthcoming: 6). Here are the general findings:

More Ethnic Diversity: Chaves and Anderson report that there are two forms of increasing ethnic diversity: 1), there are more and more ethnically diverse congregations in the United States, and 2) congregations, particularly predominantly white congregations, are becoming more internally diverse.

More acceptance of Gays and Lesbians: The NCS examines both whether or not openly gay or lesbian couples in a committed relationships are allowed to be full members of the congregation, and whether those individuals are allowed to have volunteer positions open to members. From the last version of the NCS six years ago to now, the number of congregations that allow gay and lesbian individuals to become full members has grown from 37.4 percent to 48 percent. The number of congregations where volunteer positions were open to gay and lesbian individuals increased from 17.7 percent to 26.4 percent. These are overall trends — Catholics found less overall acceptance between 2006 and 2012. White conservative Protestant congregations had greater levels of acceptance of gays and lesbians, but the rates of gay and lesbian individuals in leadership did not change.

More Informal Worship: More people are attending worship services where there are drums, jumping/shouting/dancing, raising hands in praise, visual projection equipment, a time for greeting others within the service, and speaking in tongues. Fewer people are worshipping at churches where there are choirs, or where a written program or bulletin is used.

Declining Size: Generally, the average size of congregations is decreasing, but more and more people are attending large congregations. The NCS measures congregational size in a number of ways 1) median number of people involved in any way in congregations, 2) the median number of regular participants, 3) the median attendance at the main worship service, and 4) the median attendance at all weekend worship services. Between 2006 and 2012, all four measures showed decline. While these measures show the average congregation, the average individual attending worship services have attended congregations and worship services that are growing in size.

Declining Denominational Affiliation: While it’s still true that most people attend congregations that are affiliated with a denomination, non-denominational congregations are growing in number. Between 1998 and 2012, the number of congregations in the sample that reported they were non-denominational increased from 18 percent to 24 percent. Additionally, the amount of money donated by denominationally-affiliated congregations to their denominations has decreased, from 8 percent of its income in 1998 to 4 percent in 2012.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org