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National Congregations Study: Technology Tops Trends

A second snapshot of U.S. religious congregations reveals that the biggest change since 1998 is increased use of computer technology. Other growing trends in American worship include more informal worship practices, a graying of congregations and clergy, and churches that are less white and more ethnically diverse.

“This is the first study that has tracked change over time in a nationally representative sample of congregations,” said Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University and lead researcher on the project.

“Perhaps the biggest surprise is that some things clearly are changing, even over just an eight-year period,” said Chaves. “Religious traditions and organizations, after all, are widely considered to be remarkably resistant to change.”

His initial analysis of the survey, co-authored with Shawna Anderson, a research associate at Duke and a graduate student at the University of Arizona, was published in the Winter 2008 edition of the journal Sociology of Religion.

The second National Congregations Study (NCS Wave I), conducted in 2006–07, encompasses information from 1,506 congregations across many religious traditions. Informants participated in a 45-minute interview designed to collect facts and opinions about congregations’ social composition, structure, activities, and programming. The first NCS survey was conducted in 1998.

Among the findings:

  • The number of churches with websites increased from 17 percent of all congregations in 1998 to 44 percent in 2006–07, an average of 10,000 new church websites each year since 1998.

  • E-mail communication is used by 59 percent of all congregations, up from 21 percent in 1998. Visual projectors are now commonplace during worship in 27 percent of congregations, up from 12 percent in 1998.

  • More church services now incorporate drums, jumping and shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, calling out “Amen,” and applause.

  • Overall, the use of drums increased from 20 percent of congregations in 1998 to 34 percent in 2006–07; people now raise their hands in praise in 57 percent of congregations, compared with 45 percent in 1998; and applause occurred in 61 percent in 2006–07, compared with 55 percent in 1998.

  • Among lead pastors, the average age is 53 compared with 48 in 1998. Just 39 percent of churches are led by someone under the age of 50 these days, down from 48 percent in 1998. The “graying clergy” phenomenon is happening across denominations.

  • Thirty percent of people in the average congregation are 60 years and older — up from 25 percent in 1998. In short, church populations — in step with their clergy — are aging somewhat faster than society as a whole, Chaves said.

  • Reflecting recent immigration trends, only 14 percent of all churchgoers attend a church that is all white and non-Hispanic, a drop from 20 percent of churchgoers in 1998. The number attending churches with no Asian members also has decreased — from 59 percent in 1998 to 50 percent in 2006–07.

Initial data from the survey, including an interactive data analysis tool, is available at the National Congregations Study. The complete data set will be available in the summer of 2009 from The Association of Religion Data Archives.