01: The small congregation is receiving new attention, judging by a spate of new studies suggesting that the size of churches may have little to do with their vitality.
In the current issue of Visions, (May/June) a newsletter of religion and demographics, Anthony Healy writes that research such as the new Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey from Hartford Seminary and the University of Arizona-based National Congregations Survey (NSC) point to “astounding numbers of small congregations that populate out inner cities, small towns, rural places, and even our growing suburbs.
Not only are these small congregations continuing to survive, they also “appear in many cases to be doing well, and even flourishing.” The FACT survey finds that about 61 percent of local religious bodies had less than 150 adults and children as regular participants, while the NCS found that half of all congregations had 75 or fewer congregations. A more recent study of 73 independent Protestant churches in different parts of the country by Hartford Seminary likewise finds a median weekly attendance of 110 people.
These small churches are not shrinking due to the growth of larger congregations. Small congregations have proliferated in recent years, suggesting that people are gravitating to both small and large congregations. Healy writes that these findings challenge traditional notions that small churches are naturally on the way to extinction while larger congregations serve an ever larger pool of members drawn to their services and programs.
Large congregations are still seen as the expected goal of denominations’ new church development programs, but Healy sees small congregations “increasingly becoming a force in American religion and drawing in people, too. Like megachurches, these too are new formulation churches,” in that these small congregations are often successful in “spawning numerous small bodies.”
(Visions, P.O. Box 94144, Atlanta, GA 30377)
02: The number of Jewish Americans identifying with a religion other than Judaism has more than doubled in the last decade, according to a new study.
The suvey is an update of the 1990 study of religious identification by City University of New York (CUNY). The Jewish Week (Nov. 2) reports that the study shows that 1.4 million Jews say they are Jewish due to parentage or ethnicity but align themselves with another faith community. In 1990, 625,000 Jews identified themselves in that manner.
The survey also finds that an additional 1.4 million Jews — another quarter of the population — say they are secular or have no religion at all, leaving just 51 percent of American Jews claiming they are Jewish by religion. Sociologist Egon Mayer, who conducted the study along with Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, says the results “portend a kind of split between two facets of identity that historically were always unified.”
(The Jewish Week, 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036)
03: Although concerned about drug use, few clergy preach about the problem or have received training to deal with it in their congregations, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
The study polled 415 respondents among clergy and seminary presidents and found that Eastern Orthodox clergy had the highest percentage of clergy with some training on the issue (27 percent), followed by Catholics (17.9 percent), Protestants (13.1 percent) and Jews (2.3 percent). The Washington Times (Nov. 15) reports that the study found that clergy and seminaries may not be the only ones ignoring the faith factor in substance abuse.
It found that 43 percent of psychiatrists said they would not recommend their patients to consult clergy, despite the mounting research showing the beneficial effects of religious belief and drug prevention on recovery.
04: Intercessory prayer for infertile couples appears to dramatically improve the chances of pregnancy, according to recent research at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The research, cited in Spirituality & Health magazine (Winter), involved 199 women attempting in-vitro fertilization in Seoul, Korea. The mothers were randomly placed either in a group where they were prayed for by Christians in the U.S., Canada and Australia, or in a non-prayer group.
Those women who were prayed for had a higher pregnancy rate; for women between 30 and 39, the pregnancy rate for the prayed for group was 51 percent, compared with 23 percent for the non-prayer group. The report, published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, tended to soft-pedal the findings, saying the Columbia researchers are “working hard to find biological or other phenomena” to account for the difference. The magazine notes that the reticence may be because the “last time the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons made bi headlines in this field was when Richard P. Sloan, Ph.D., carefully documented for the Lancet how there is no proven connection between spirituality and health.”
(Spirituality & Health, 74 Trinity Place, New York, NY 10006-2088
05: Location is among the most important factors in the creation of megachurches, according to an analysis from the Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey.
Nearly 72 percent of the churches with average weekly attendance of at least 2,000 persons are located in an area spanning between Georgia and Florida to Texas and California. While the fact that megachurches are mainly located in the Sun Belt is not an unexpected finding, the FACT research on 600 megachurches, headed up by Scott Thumma, does back up some hunches while challenging others.
Thumma finds these large, multi-faceted congregations are pastor-driven, despite their emphasis on lay ministry and volunteerism. Seventy percent of all the megachurches reported that their growth took place during the tenure of the current senior pastor. On average, the senior pastor is 52 yours old and has served the congregation more than 12 years.
The megachurches also tend to support social ministry programs in their communities, with 78 percent hosting or contributing to thrift stores and provide temporary or permanent housing and shelter. As widely reported, the megachurches often had weak ties to their denominations; only 27 percent purchase educational or other materials from denominational sources.
(More information on the FACT study of megachurches is found at: http://www.hartsem.edu/denom/denom-frame.htm).
06: A “religious renaissance” is emerging in the major cities of Europe, according to Catholic theologian and sociologist Paul Zulehner of Vienna.
The German evangelical newsletter Idea (Nov. 19) reports that in examining surveys in all Western European cities with more than one million citizens, Zulehner finds significant change. In Brussels, Belgium, the percentage of people who call themselves “religious” has risen from 48 percent to 59 percent in the last decade. In Lisbon, Portugal, the figures jumped from 51 percent to 82 percent.
Vienna’s increase was more modest, going from 62 to 64 percent. The only exception to this pattern is found in Paris, which showed a decrease from 55 to 48 percent. Zulehner adds that parish life in big cities has stabilized, with the highest attendance shown among evangelicals (39 percent), Catholics (37 percent), Orthodox (14 percent),and Lutheran and Reformed Protestants (10 percent).
(Idea, P.O. Box 1820, D-35528 Wetzlar, Germany; website: http://www.idea.de)