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The "Ask an Expert" Series at Studying Congregations

Do you have a question for our research team? This series explores in-depth analysis of big questions and conversations about congregations today. Many of these articles are answers to questions you, our readers, have asked. If you would like to submit a question to be answered in this series, email Timothy Snyder at tksnyder@bu.edu.

Affiliation Matters

The latest Pew Religious Landscape Survey is full of interesting insights into changes occurring in American religion. As I look at these survey results, here are a few of the things I’ve noted. On most measures of religiosity (prayer, attendance, belief, etc.), those who are in the “affiliated” camp are just as observant and believing as they were in 2007. The changes, as Pew points out, are happening because of two reinforcing trends: More Americans are in the “unaffiliated” camp, and those unaffiliated people are becoming less...
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How Are We Doing?

One of the reasons people get interested in learning more about a congregation is often that they want to know how they are doing. Are we healthy? Are we happy? Are we growing? And are we fulfilling our mission? Ah – now there’s a reason to take stock! That, of course, assumes that you know what that mission is, but it also calls for some creative thinking about how to know when you’ve seen evidence that it’s happening.   In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Zachary First took the case of one congregation as an illustration of the...
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6 Ways to Keep Congregational Conflicts Constructive

Question: We are watching congregations all around us be torn apart by conflicts. How can we prevent this from happening to our church and stay out of conflict? It sounds like you are concerned that if your church has a conflict, it necessarily will be torn apart. Not all conflicts need be so destructive: there are many examples of churches that have struggled through conflicts to emerge as resilient, flourishing faith communities, although the news media rarely reports on these in contrast to the over-attention given to churches in conflict.
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Why young Chinese Americans don’t go to church

Question: Why don’t young Chinese Americans go to church? Lying at the intersection of America’s most nonreligious ethnic group and America’s most nonreligious age demographic, young adult Chinese Americans (aged 25-40) are one of the most secular groups in the United States. That is, they are the most likely to be unaffiliated with any institutionalized religion. What are the experiences, assumptions, and values that specifically make church so unappealing to young Chinese Americans? In an ongoing research project investigating the...
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The Reality Behind “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Question: I hear a lot about people being “spiritual, but not religious.” What does that mean? “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious” is a common refrain in contemporary conversations.  Many people seem eager to claim a connection with something they can call “spiritual,” but wary of the beliefs, traditions, and communities they think of as “religious.” Are religion and spirituality really at odds with each other?  Are traditional congregations really doomed to extinction as each person...
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Why are young adults leaving their churches?

Question:  Why are all the young adults leaving the churches that their families have been part of for generations?  If we change our worship style to be more like the churches they are now attending, will they come back? There are lots of issues behind this question, and many of them involve understanding the culture of the congregation.  The immediate cultural question raised has to do with worship style and music, but what happens during the worship service is just one part of the culture.  People who share a community also share ways...
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Difficulties of Diversity – Why So Few Congregations are Racially Integrated

Question: Why are so few congregations racially integrated? Racial diversity in congregations is a popular topic among religious leaders and researchers of religion. Despite a desire for diversity, multiracial congregations are difficult to create and sustain. Less than one in ten U.S. congregations are classified as multiracial, meaning that no single racial group makes up 80 percent or more of the congregation. There is a strong tendency toward racial homogeneity in congregations. Race is an unconscious sorting mechanism guiding how...
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What do we know about congregational size?

Question: What do we know about congregational size? In the United States, most congregations are smaller than 100 people, but most people attend congregations that are large. This points to the fact that many people attend “megachurches,” or churches larger than 2,000 people (see the earlier post on why someone would attend a megachurch by Gerardo Marti). These congregations continue to swell in size, attracting members away from the smaller congregations. What’s interesting, though, is that the churches that have the...
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Steve Warner: By The Numbers

Question: What can survey research tell us about churn attendance? Social scientists have been tracking self-reported religious service attendance for over seventy years. At present, over 40% of adult Americans claim to attend church (or other religious services) nearly every week. That figure is 25% lower than at its peak in the 1950s, but it has remained remarkably stable for the past four decades, declining at most by couple of percentage points. That decline should not be taken as evidence for a pattern of long-term secular decline,...
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Why would anyone attend a Megachurch?

Question:  Why would anyone attend a Megachurch? It just seems to be about hype and money and the pastor promoting himself. That’s not what church should be about. I never expected to become an apologist for the Megachurch when I began my research years ago, but I’ve been shocked by the extent to which people say such negative — sometimes outright mean — things about megachurches. Just say the word “Megachurch” and watch the disgust on people’s faces. To answer the question of why people go to megachurches we...
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