In recent decades, the greatest story of American religious life has been one of decline.
The congregations are dwindling. Churches are closing. Religious ‘no’s are on the rise.
What gets lost amid all the roundtables, reflections and investigative reports on these trends is the fact that faith communities are far from dead. As sociologist Mark Chaves puts it, “Even though the decline is ongoing, religion remains, by world standards, very vibrant in the United States.”
“The decline is an important story and we must continue to tell it. … But we should also tell stories about what is happening among people who are still in church,” he said.
In a new report presenting the results of the study on national congregations, Chaves takes his own advice. He and his co-authors take a close look at what is happening within American churches and highlight a number of surprising and little-discussed trends.
“You can use this data to tell a different story than the usual story of decline,” said Chaves, who leads the National Congregational Study and is also a professor of sociology and religious studies at Duke University. The current study is a nationally representative survey of congregations that was first conducted in 1998.
Among the trends highlighted in the report is the growing racial and ethnic diversity within churches across the United States.
When the survey was first conducted, 71% of U.S. congregations were majority white and non-Hispanic. Over the next two decades, that figure dropped nearly 20 percentage points to 53%.
“Even though churches remain very segregated places in general, they are less segregated than they used to be,” Chaves said.
Likewise, although the American religious landscape continues to be dominated by Christian churches, it is gradually becoming more diverse.
“Overall, there are now about as many Buddhist or Hindu synagogues, mosques, and temples in the United States (9% of all congregations) as there are Catholic parishes (6% of all congregations),” the researchers noted in the new report.
Here are some of the other findings highlighted by Chaves and his co-authors:
- Members of small congregations give more money to their house of worship than members of large congregations.
- Worship services today are more likely to be informal and feature expressive activities like raising hands than they were in the past.
- Women are increasingly taking leadership positions in their churches. The latest wave of the survey (conducted from 2018 to 2019) found that 14% of U.S. congregations are led by women. Nearly 9 out of 10 places of worship now allow women to sit on their boards of directors.
- Members of politically liberal congregations are much more likely than members of politically conservative congregations to say that their church would publicly support political candidates if legal prohibitions on this practice were lifted. In general, “liberal churches are more often politically active than conservative churches,” Chaves said.
- More than half of US congregations (54%) allow openly gay and lesbian people to become church members. This figure has increased considerably in recent years.
Chaves hopes that these and other data points shared in the report, which is written for a general audience rather than an academic audience, will help people better understand how the worship practices, community programs and policies of their congregations compare to the rest of the country.
“Everyone knows their own situation. Findings like these help people put their own situation in a bigger context,” he said.