Churches More Informal, Diverse than a Decade Ago

American churches have a more informal worship style and ethnically diverse congregation than ten years ago, found a recent study on religious congregation trends.

More worship services include drums, jumping and shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, calling out "amen," visual projection equipment, applause, and speaking by people other than leaders compared to 1998, the National Congregations Study shows.

Fewer churches feature traditional choirs during services.

Most of the informal service changes occur in Protestant and Catholic churches that are increasingly using visual projection equipment and drums. The increase in jumping, shouting and dancing occur most frequently in black churches.

Lead researcher Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at Duke University School of Divinity, noted that the study's findings are especially noteworthy because "religious traditions and organizations are widely considered to be remarkably resistant to change," according to USA Today.

But the numbers for some features have remained about the same, including a sermon or speech, singing, greeting time, silent prayer or meditation, reading or reciting Scripture time, and speaking in tongues during service.

Besides becoming more informal, churches in America have also changed to be more ethnically diverse.

Noting that recent immigration has "clearly" played a role in congregations' social composition, the study observed that predominantly white and non-Hispanic congregations are more ethnically diverse than they were in 1998.

The number of people in congregations with no Latinos decreased from 43 percent in 1998 to 36 percent in 2006-07. Meanwhile, the number of congregations with no Asians decreased from 59 percent to 50 percent, according to the study.

Congregations that reported no recent immigrants dropped from 61 percent in 1998 to 49 percent in 2006-07.

Another way of looking at the data is the number of people in completely white and non-Hispanic congregations decreased from 20 percent to 14 percent in the nine-year period.

But the diversity occurred mostly among white churches; the majority of black churches still remain predominantly racially homogeneous.

Diversity is also seen among clergy, mainly in Catholic churches. The head clergy has become increasingly minority, with 13 percent of Catholic churches now led by black or Hispanic priests, compared to only 1 percent in 1998.

Along with the diversity, however, leaders of congregations are older, on average, than they were in 1998. The median age of the head clergy has increased from 49 in 1998 to 53 in 2006. Furthermore, congregations across the religious spectrum have fewer younger leaders. Today, only 39 percent of congregations are led by someone 50 years old or younger, a drop from 48 percent in 1998.

Catholic and liberal/mainline congregations are more likely to have older clergy compared to other churches.

The biggest change seen in congregations over the past decade was in the area of computer technology.

In 1998, the number of congregations with Web sites was only 17 percent. The number has since risen to 44 percent in 2006-07. In other words, since 1998 another 10,000 congregations created Web sites and now 74 percent of service attendees are in congregations with Web sites.

Meanwhile, the number of those using email to communicate with members increased from 21 percent to 59 percent during this time period. Nearly 80 percent of attendees as of 2006-07 are in congregations that communicate with members via email.

"Congregations apparently have enthusiastically embraced new information technologies," Chaves noted in the detailed article found in the latest issue of the journal Sociology of Religion.

In other findings, the median congregation is the same size today as it was in 1998 (75 regular participants); the median person still attends a congregation that is the same size as it was in 1998 (400 regular participants); the overall level of conflict within congregations has not changed much since 1998, with 26 percent of congregations experiencing a conflict in the last 2 years that led some people to leave and only 2 percent of congregations reporting a conflict over homosexuality; and there has been 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.

The National Congregation Study Wave II compared 1,505 congregations in 2006-2007 with 1,234 in 1998. About 60 percent of the NCS-II questions replicate those from the 1998 study. The data was mostly gathered via telephone, along with some in-person, interviews between May 2006 and April 2007.

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