01: Scholars claiming that the church attendance figures of Americans have been inflated were given a boost by political scientist Robert Putnam at the recent meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Boston.
Putnam, who gained attention for his study, “Bowling Alone,” which found a widespread decline of Americans belonging to voluntary organizations, sees a corresponding drop in involvement in religious institutions. Using relatively unknown marketing survey results from D.B. Needham and other pollsters, Putnam finds that church attendance dropped 30-40 percent since 1975. Putnam suggests much of this drop comes from Protestants — even though many pollsters have claimed that the Protestant have not declined in attendance as much as the Catholics.
He finds that polling percentages on attendance don’t accurately show that the overall number of Protestants in the U.S. has dropped since the 1960s. Putnam reaffirmed his view that civic activity is down in the U.S. by as much as 50 percent since the 1960s. Because half of such activity is religious, this spells a significant loss of what he calls “social capital” among churches and similar institutions.
02: New United Methodist congregations that are growing are likely to use contemporary forms of worship, but are not necessarily conservative in doctrine, according to an in-depth study of these churches.
The study, presented at the Boston SSSR conference, surveyed the 210 United Methodist churches that were founded between 1991 and 1996. Most of these congregations are in the American South and West, although new church starts are occurring all over the U.S., according to researchers Gregory Hastings and Samuel Johnson of Boston University School of Theology.
Johnson and Hastings find that those churches that have the lowest growth rates have maintained traditional worship styles, regardless of whether their theology was conservative or liberal. The same dynamic worked the other way: those that “have let go of traditional worship and have adopted contemporary styles are growing significantly faster.” Theological conservatives within the contemporary worship group are only doing slightly better than liberal contemporary worshippers.
03: Despite the prevailing view that conservative Christians and their perspectives are excluded from the halls of prestigious universities, a recent study suggests that evangelicals and Catholics have found ways of bridging the worlds of their faith and their academic disciplines.
In a paper presented at the Boston meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), John Schmalzbauer found that with the widespread questioning of objectivity in various disciplines and such trends as multiculturalism, Catholic and evangelical scholars have been able to assert their right to get a hearing in the university and do not feel particularly excluded.
Schmalzbauer, a sociologist at the College of the Holy Cross, interviewed 20 prominent evangelical and Catholic social scientists and historians and found that rather than separating their religious and professional identities into two compartments, most of the respondents were “able to translate their religious convictions into professional jargon and vice versa.”
In presenting prominent evangelical historian George Marsden and Catholic political scientist John DiIulio as case studies, Schmalzbauer finds that these and other scholars tend to combine rhetoric from scholarly trends criticizing objectivity and calling for inclusiveness toward minorities as well as standard scholarship emphasizing objectivity and professionalism. Anecdotal reports have noted the sharp rise of evangelicals among “elite” Christian intellectuals since the 1960s, and, in another paper presented at the conference, William Weston of Centre College showed some figures to support this trend.
In examining the endowed lectureships at seminaries, Weston finds that only 13 percent of the speakers at these events were evangelicals in the 1960s; by the year 2,000, 33 percent of the lecturers will be evangelicals. The figure was higher for those Christians Weston called “traditionalists” and “neoconservatives”–those who may be orthodox in theology but not part of the evangelical subculture. He also found that the barriers between Protestants and Catholics have broken down, although mainly at the Protestant seminaries. More Catholics have given endowed lectures at Protestant seminaries than Protestants have been invited to speak at similar events at Catholic institutions.
04: Evangelism comprises a significant part in many churches’ involvement in social services, but such activity doesn’t necessarily limit the scope of those congregations’ social outreach, according to a new study.
Critics have charged that religious social service organizations tend to focus on evangelism and may exclude clients who do not agree with their religious teachings. The Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project conducted by Eastern Seminary was one of many groups and scholars presenting research on religious social service programs at the SSSR conference [There were 15 sessions devoted to these ministries and the new partnerships they are forming with the government — far more than in previous years]. The project examines 15 case studies of churches in Philadelphia involved in various forms of social outreach.
Most of the churches were what the researchers call “holistic” congregations, meaning that they see both evangelism and social outreach as vital aspects of the church’s mission. The researchers observed “some degree of badgering” in the studied congregations, “but rarely in the context of service provision.” Only two congregations required recipients to participate in a religious activity in order to receive a benefit (such as a sermon before a meal), and neither case involved using public money.
Services were never denied on the basis of a person’s faith. Even churches with a strong evangelistic thrust were willing in certain cases to accept restrictions on verbal evangelism in order to receive funding for a social program (mainly because they saw actions as well as words as a form of evangelism). Researcher Heidi Unruh concludes that “This is significant in weighing the implications of Charitable Choice, [a government policy] which lifts restrictions on faith-based agencies from receiving public funds provided that they are not used for proselytization, worship, or religious instruction . . .”
05: The greatest concerns for Quakers are a steady loss of religious identity, increasing fragmentation of Quakerism, and a lack of leadership, reports a recent survey.
The study, known as Among Friends, was based on focus groups and interviews with a total of 250 individuals and is said to be the most extensive look at Quakers in the U.S. ever conducted. Quaker Life magazine (November) reports that a major concern was how Quakers appear confused and indistinct. One focus group participant said, “One group of Friends are hardly Christian anymore; the other have lost much of the Quaker identity by identifying with evangelical churches that grow faster than ours do.”
These differences and divisions between Quakers also worried respondents, as they thought it dissipated their witness to the wider society. On this subject, the report concluded that when Quakers from different branches find themselves working on a common project (such as serving together as conscientious objectors during wars) their commonalties rise to the surface more than when holding discussions with each other. Finally, the anti-authoritarian nature of Quakers often makes them overly critical of leaders, according to respondents.
Among “programmed” (those who have pastors and preaching) and non-programmed Quakers, there is weak support for elders, clerks and other leaders; the situation may worsen as current leaders have not found a younger cohort to replace them.
(Quaker Life, 101 Quaker Hill Drive, Richmond, IN 47374)
06: Children are most likely to have a born again experience rather than youth and adults, according to a new Barna poll.
The survey, conducted by the Barna Research Group and based on a poll of 4200 young people and adults, shows that people from age 5 through 13 have a 32 percent likelihood of accepting Christ as their savior. Young people from the ages of 14 through 18 have just a four percent probability of doing so, while adults (19 through death) have only a six percent chance of making this commitment. Pollster George Barna writes that this information is consistent with previous surveys showing the highest receptivity to the evangelical message taking place before age 18.
But he adds that this is the first study where the liklihood of the born again experience was calculated at different life stages. The results also “challenge the widely-held belief that teenage years are prime years for evangelistic activity,” Barna writes in a news release (Nov. 15).
(Barna Research Group, www.barna.org)
07: It has almost become a cliché that people in the pews, even in the most liberal denominations, remain relatively conservative.
A recent survey from the United Church of Christ reveals a broad conservatism among members as well as the limits to such orthodoxy. The UCC survey may surprise people who consider the church the most liberal denomination in mainline Protestantism. The survey is part of a denominational Bible study project where 1,000 members responded to questions relating to biblical knowledge and authority. When asked about basic teachings, 86.9 percent agreed that Jesus rose from the dead.
Sixty Nine percent believe Jesus was born to a virgin. Only 16.5 agreed with the statement that “Only Christians go to Heaven.” On the question of the most important imagery of God for respondents, 75 percent said “Father,” while 27.2 percent said “Mother,” reports the Witness, the newspaper of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, an evangelical renewal group in the UCC. “Creator” was the most popular imagery for God at 90 percent.
(The Witness, P.O. Box 102, Candia, NH 03034-0102)