The character of our congregations
In late 1995, a group of religious researchers from across the United States began discussing an ambitious project that would involve the most comprehensive study of American congregations ever attempted.
Leading the planning for this project were Carl Dudley and David Roozen of Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Conn. Dudley and Roozen contacted Tom Winter and Doug Foster of Abilene Christian University to help gather data for Churches of Christ.
Consequently, Churches of Christ have been significant players in the development and implementation of the study from its beginning. Originally labeled the Cooperative Congregational Studies Project and now known as “Faith Communities Today (FaCT),” this is a groundbreaking examination of the character and vitality of religious congregations in American society.
The FaCT project has been underwritten by major grants from the Lilly Endowment, with each religious group providing matching funds for its part of the study. The College of Biblical Studies at ACU provided matching funds for the survey of Churches of Christ.
This study is unique in several ways. Perhaps the most significant is the unprecedented collaboration by diverse, sometimes antagonistic, religious groups to identify common aims of congregational activity, and to develop shared questions that every group could agree to use in examining what occurs at the congregational level. The use of these common questions allows researchers to see a more complete picture of the nature and impact of congregational activity than has ever been described before.
Another unique characteristic of the project is the respect and openness that has been extended to the participating groups. Each religious body was given the option of protecting its identity in the dissemination of the national data, although most were willing to be identified in the final reports that will be developed over the next 12-18 months.
The most significant characteristic of the project, however, is its potential for practical application at the congregational level. Throughout the project, the underlying premise has been that unless the findings are of value to individual congregations, these efforts are futile.
Tom Winter, associate provost at Abilene Christian University, served on both the project’s Steering Committee and Research Committee. Doug Foster, director of the Center for Restoration Studies at ACU, was instrumental in developing materials for congregational use and planning ways to use the study’s results in universities and seminaries.
Members of the Turner Road Church of Christ, Dayton, Ohio, assisted in field testing the congregational workbooks, and provided valuable input into planning for congregation-based use of the data.
More than 40 religious groups participated in the FaCT project. These bodies represent approximately 95 percent of the American population who identify themselves with a religious congregation – clearly the most comprehensive study of congregations ever conducted in the United States. The national results (consisting of aggregate data, without identifying the characteristics of individual groups) are scheduled to be released in mid-March at a major press conference in New York. Over time, more complex analyses between groups will be possible as individual groups make their data available.
FaCT seeks to accomplish three broad objectives. First, it is designed to provide a comprehensive description of the activities of congregations in the United States today. Second, it seeks to document how congregations use resources – both financial and non-financial – to promote the spiritual lives of members and support the communities in which they are located. Finally, FaCT is designed to provide a picture of leadership in local congregations.
Each participating group selected a representative sample of congregations large enough to assure the findings accurately represent the group as a whole. Through use of a written survey, filled out by a minister or other church leader, the study asked for responses to approximately 190 “core” questions, with each religious group including additional questions of unique interest to them. The study focuses on eight themes:
• Spiritual, organizational and numerical strength of congregations;
• Variety and style of worship – the foundational act of religious gatherings;
• Congregational activities and programs that nurture faith and provide opportunities for the expression of faith;
• Characteristics of members;
• Strategies congregations use to reach new members and raise financial resources;
• Characteristics of ministerial and “lay” leadership;
• How congregations relate to other congregations, to church structures, and to other institutions in their communities; and
• The ways congregations support and strengthen the well being of their communities.
This article reports some of the more significant findings of the FaCT study based on replies of nearly 300 congregations in Churches of Christ who responded to the survey received in early 2000. Areas of findings are:
• What We’ve Learned About our Congregations
Six areas are of immediate interest: worship patterns, congregational “histories,” the organization of our congregations, congregational composition, financial health and congregational programs.
•Worship in our Congregations
An overwhelming majority of Churches of Christ have a single Sunday morning worship service (86.2 percent). However, about one in eight congregations (13.4 percent) have two or more Sunday morning services. Of those that have multiple Sunday morning worship services, most report the two services are very similar in style (80.6 percent). While nearly one in five (19.4 percent) indicate their multiple services differ in style, fewer than one in ten of the congregations (9.7 percent) report significantly different worship styles in their multiple services. Sunday evening only worship services are rare; only one congregation reported meeting only at this time. Almost all of the congregations that responded indicated they have a Sunday Bible class program (93.9 percent).
(See Tables 1 and 2)
Sunday evening services remain typical among Churches of Christ, with 83.4 percent reporting a Sunday night worship time. However, about one in seven congregations (14.6 percent) report that they do not meet on Sunday night. Wednesday night services are more common than Sunday night services, with 91.3 percent of the responding congregations indicating they hold midweek services of some sort.
(See Table 3)
Given widespread concerns about changes in worship, respondents were asked to indicate how much their worship patterns or style have changed over the past five years. Interestingly, over half the congregations (51.8 percent) say their worship is basically the same, and another 21 percent say it has changed only a little. And while one in five congregations say their worship style has changed somewhat (20.7 percent), only a small number of congregations (6.5 percent) report that the style of their Sunday morning worship has changed significantly.
More controversial worship trends appear to be relatively infrequent among Churches of Christ; most (67.5 percent) never include dramatic presentations as a part of worship, most (75.3 percent) never use special music by small groups or individuals, and most (85.1 percent) never use “praise teams” in worship. The vast majority of congregations of Churches of Christ (97.5 percent) report they have never used instrumental music in a worship service.
(See Tables 4 and 5)
• The Histories of our Congregations
Half of the congregations were established before 1950, based on responses to this study. However, nearly a third of the congregations (30.8 percent) began between 1941 and 1960 – during the post-World War II “boom” in the United States. Based on this data, it is evident that church-planting continued to thrive between 1961 and 1980, with another 20.3 percent of the congregations indicating they began during this period. However, only about one in 10 congregations (10.9 percent) reports having been established since 1981, suggesting that new congregations are less common today than during the mid-20th century.
(See Table 6)
Close to half of the congregations are located in either rural areas (10.6 percent) or in towns or villages of fewer than 10,000 persons (33.7 percent). And while nearly a fourth of the congregations are located in cities between 50,000 and 249,999 population (23.5 percent), churches are under-represented in small cities (18.9 percent of the congregations) and in major metropolitan areas (13.3 percent of the congregations). This suggests that Churches of Christ do not have as strong a physical presence in densely populated urban areas as in rural and small-town America.
(See Table 7)
• The Makeup of our Congregations
Seventy-seven percent of congregations stated that “many” of their members (between 41 percent and 60 percent) are women, and another 12 percent indicated that “most” of their members (between 61 percent and 80 percent) are female. Eighty-five percent of the churches said that “many” to “nearly all” of their membership are married, and one-fourth indicated that “many” of their households have children under the age of 18 at home. About a third of the congregations said few to none of their families have children of this age at home. Over all these figures reflect a high level of social stability in Churches of Christ.
Slightly less than half of Churches of Christ said that between 20 and 40 percent of their members are age 35 or less while 21 percent indicated that most or nearly all of their members are in that age range. Almost a third reported, however, that they have “few” to “hardly any” of these young adult members. When asked about the percentage of their members who are over 60 years old, over a fourth of the churches reported that “many” to “nearly all” of their members fit that age category. An additional third of the churches said that between 20 and 40 percent of their members are that age.
The vast majority of congregations — almost 80 percent — reported that “few” of their members have less than a high school diploma. On the other hand, only one in 10 said that “most” of their members are college graduates, with 38 percent responding that “few” to “none” of the congregation have a college degree. This is in sharp contrast to the education level of ministers in our churches, almost 55 percent of whom hold bachelors or masters degrees, and another 7.6 percent who have doctorates (Foster, Hailey and Winter, Ministers at the Millennium, ACU Press, 2000, pp. 40-41].
It is not unusual to expect leaders to have higher education levels. Yet wide differences between minister and members in a congregation provide potential for conflict, especially when an “anti-intellectual” sentiment exists among members of the congregation. These conflicts might also exist between congregations with significantly different education levels.
Over 30 percent of the congregations said that most to nearly all of their members are lifelong members of Churches of Christ, and another third said that between 41 and 60 percent have been raised in our fellowship. Only about 14 percent reported they had few to no lifelong members. Echoing this data are the answers to the question concerning how many members are new to the congregation in the last five years. More than 56 percent replied few to none, with only 12 percent of the churches reporting that “many” (41 percent to 60 percent) have come in the last half-decade. This indicates a great deal of stability, but also reflects a lack of growth.
A very small percentage of members of Churches of Christ are poor according to responses to the question about annual household income. Over 75 percent of the congregations said that few to none of their members have incomes under $20,000. About 14 percent said the statement described “some”of their members, while only 10 percent said that most of their members had incomes in this range.
Not surprisingly, the ethnic makeup of congregations is strikingly similar. Well over a third of the churches reported all of their members are white, and almost 80 percent said that their membership is 90 percent or more white. Only about 10 percent of the congregations reported having members who were American Indian, Asian or Hispanic. And of the 70 percent who said they have African American members, the percentage of the congregation was less than 10 percent black, over half reporting less than 5 percent. Only about 6 percent of the churches indicated they are predominately black (95 percent or more).
The average age of ministers reported by participating congregations was 48, a figure consistent with data from the 1996 ministers survey (Ministers at the Millennium, ACU Press, 2000) which showed 47 as the average.
Our congregations have, on average, two full time staff persons on the payroll, with statistically another 1.6 part-time personnel. Almost two-thirds of the churches reported having elders, with an average of four each. A slightly higher number of congregations said they have deacons or ministry leaders (69.7 percent), with an average number of 11. About 10 percent of these churches reported that some of their deacons/ministry leaders were women.
When asked to describe the basic doctrinal outlook of the majority of regularly participating adults, 20 percent said “very conservative,” while 35 percent responded “somewhat conservative,” and the same proportion responded “moderate.” Only about 9 percent reported they are “somewhat progressive or liberal,” with only one congregation in the entire group of respondents saying they are “very progressive or liberal.”
(See Table 9)
• Financial Health of Our Congregations
Most congregations report strong financial situations. Two in five congregations (42.9 percent) report their current financial health is “excellent,” and another third (33.1 percent) indicate their financial situation is “good.” Of the remaining congregations, most (20.4 percent) state that although finances are tight, they are “getting by.” Only 3.3 percent report being in some financial difficulty, and an even smaller number (0.4 percent) report being in serious financial straits.
(See Table 10)
When describing their financial health in 1995, somewhat fewer congregations report that their situation was “excellent” at that time (25.7 percent); and another two in five churches (40.8 percent) indicated that their financial health five years ago was “good.” While 26.4 percent of the congregations describe their 1995 financial situation as tight, nearly twice as many congregations were in financial trouble five years ago (6.0 percent in “some” difficulty, and 1.1 percent in serious difficulty). This suggests that congregations have generally benefited from the recent strong economy, and that few are in financial situations that threaten their continued existence.
The typical congregation works from a budget (68.5 percent report having an annual budget) of just under $203,000, but receives contributions and other income of just over $197,000; it is unclear how congregations manage this deficit situation. Congregations spend an average of 23.9 percent of their income for operating expenses (including building, utilities, mortgages, maintenance and equipment), 45.5 percent for salaries, and 7.6 percent for other program support and materials. They contribute about 12.2 percent of their income to national or foreign mission work, including cooperatively sponsored programs such as Herald of Truth or World Radio, and another 4.9 percent for “local” missions. Churches allocate 4.3 percent of their budget to non-Church of Christ sponsored programs such as Habitat for Humanity or Meals on Wheels, and spend just over ten percent (10.1 percent) for capital improvements. A small amount (1.1 percent) goes toward support of congregationally-organized schools, and the typical congregation invests 11.1 percent of its income. (Percentages total more than 100 percent due to differences in congregational size.)
• Our Congregations’ Programs
The survey included a significant section that focused on congregational educational programs. Forty-two percent of the churches said that during the previous 12 months they had on-going year-long Bible study programs other than regular Sunday School classes. While 60 percent said they had conducted theological or doctrinal studies during the past year outside of the Sunday School, most had done so on a “one-time” short term basis. Two-thirds of the congregations indicated they had special prayer groups during the previous year, with nearly half of these congregations (46 percent) reporting this was a year-round activity. More than 52 percent of the churches said they had conducted parenting or marriage enrichment seminars during the previous year, over 60 percent of whom said these kinds of classes are a regular ongoing part of their programs.
Well over half of the churches (55.2 percent) said they had conducted one or more spiritual retreats for the congregation during the past year, but most indicated that such retreats were only an occasional part of their church program.
(See Table 11)
Less than a fourth of the churches indicated they sponsored groups that discussed books or contemporary issues during the previous year. Slightly more (34.1 percent) said they conducted exercise, fitness or weight loss programs. And even more, over 42 percent, said they sponsored self-help or personal growth groups as part of the congregation’s ministries.
Eighty-four percent of the congregations reported organized youth or teen activity programs other than regular Sunday classes, with two-thirds of those churches indicating their youth program last year was on-going through the whole year. Only 40 percent of the churches said they had any kind of planned single adult activities, and only one- third of those were regular year-round programs.
In contrast to single adult programs, considerably more of our congregations have programs for senior adults — more than 57 percent, with over half of those programs conducted year round.
One-third of all the congregations reported that sports teams were a regular year round part of their church programs.
• Use of the Data by Local Congregations
When the Lilly Endowment responded to the grant application for the Cooperative Congregational Studies Project, they placed a stipulation on the funding. This was not to be another survey used by statisticians and religion scholars to gather data that most members of U.S. congregations would never see.
Ways of helping strengthen congregations had to be part of the planning from the beginning. This requirement led the project directors to look not only for researchers from each participating group to write and conduct the survey, but also for teachers who would work on ways for congregations to use the data once it was gathered.
In October 1999 and February 2000 groups of teachers met in Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio, respectively, to begin field testing congregational workbooks. In both cases the congregations that participated were thrilled at the insights they gained from the workshops and at the potential for seeing themselves in new and penetrating ways
For example, preliminary data from questions dealing with sermon content and worship services show strong differences between American Churches of Christ in general and all U.S. congregations.