National Congregations Study Finds U.S. Churches Are Starting to Look a Lot Like Culture

A large crowd attending a midweek gathering of Hillsong Church, a Pentecostal megachurch, at Belasco Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)
A large crowd attending a midweek gathering of Hillsong Church, a Pentecostal megachurch, at Belasco Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Religious institutions often see themselves as countercultural — outposts in an increasingly secular society that challenge the culture with views and practices that are no longer mainstream.

But inevitably, culture seeps in, affecting how clergy and laypeople dress and pray and behave toward one another.

A new study — the latest version of a regularly conducted survey of American congregations — finds that houses of worship, like the broader culture, are becoming increasingly informal, and increasingly open to gays and lesbians. More and more Americans worship in congregations where drums are played, words or images are projected on screens, and praise is expressed via upstretched hands. And more and more congregations — although still a minority — allow gays and lesbians to hold volunteer positions as leaders.

“Congregations are embedded in our culture and our society, and they are reflecting both the trends, but also the divisions and the conflicts,” said Mark Chaves, the director of the study and a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University.

The third National Congregations Study is based on data collected in 2012 from interviews with leaders of 1,331 congregations: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and others.

The informality of congregational worship has been growing steadily since the first National Congregations Study was conducted in 1998. Forty-six percent of Americans worship in congregations where drums are played, up from 25 percent in 1998, while 56 percent are in congregations where organs are played, down from 70 percent. Fifty-nine percent of worshipers now attend services in congregations where hands are raised as an expression of praise — up from 48 percent in 1998. Choir-singing and vestment-wearing are down, while the use of visual projection equipment and the practice of jumping, shouting or dancing by worshipers are up.

“Behaviors associated with evangelical worship style are ticking up, and there is a shift of people to large churches where this is more common,” Mr. Chaves said.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Michael Paulson

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