01: Megachurches have a significant impact on the growth and decline rates of other congregations, both inside and outside of their vicinity, according to a recent study by Jason Wollschleger of the University of Washington and Jeremy Porter of Brooklyn College.
In a paper presented at the meeting of the SSSR in Baltimore in late October, the researchers found that megachurches function much as the superstores, such as Walmart, in making certain smaller stores more competitive while dampening business for others. In examining the religious ecologies (the relationships of congregations with their neighborhoods and with other congregations) in areas surrounding megachurches through using county-level congregational data and a database on megachurches, it was found that congregations that are in different niches to the megachurches, such as mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic and fundamentalist churches, were able to successfully compete and actually grow.
In adjacent counties, the same types of mainline congregations were closer to the national average of membership loss. But the evangelical churches that were in a similar niche and the same county as a megachurch had more trouble competing. In other words, the “presence of megachurches not only restricts … normal evangelical growth, but also leads to significant decline,” according to Wollschleger and Porter. One explanation for this is that megachurches offer quality “religious goods” very similar to those provided by evangelical congregations, but are able to deliver them more efficiently. More unexpected was the finding that megachurches negatively affected evangelical churches in adjacent counties due to their ability to capitalize on interstate highways and ease of access to information to draw adherents from a distance, functioning as “destination centers.”
02: Catholic schools are less likely to close in areas with fewer Catholics as well in places where tuition tax credits are in place, according to a new study by Carol Ann MacGregor of Princeton University.
In a paper presented at the SSSR conference, MacGregor looked at Catholic school closings from the period 1980–2005. Her findings gave some credence to the idea that religious pluralism stimulates religious vitality, even in non-congregational settings such as schools. MacGregor stated that where the percentage of the population is high, there is more likely to be a school closing. In this interpretation, “Catholic concentrations become lazy and take their institutions for granted.” She adds that a different way of interpreting this finding is that public schools in strongly Catholic areas may function as de facto Catholic schools.
Fewer school closings were found in the South, but MacGregor thinks a “basement effect” may be the cause; closing schools in areas where there are few to begin with may “represent the threat of extinction” that may in some way compel Catholic loyalty. Although the presence of charter or public schools did not affect Catholic school closings, the states that had school voucher legislation showed fewer closings.
03: While there have been declines in non-profit donations and church giving since the economic crisis of 2008, the magnitude of such changes has been minor compared to the Great Depression, according to a study of church finances by Marjorie Royle, Dale Jones and Rich Houseal.
In a paper presented at the SSSR conference, these researchers compared financial statistics between the mainline United Church of Christ (UCC) and the evangelical Church of the Nazarene. In both denominations, the value of endowments dropped sharply in 2008, but then rebounded in 2009. They found that decreases were largest in churches that received the least income from member giving. African-American churches were affected more in both bodies, especially when the crisis first hit.
In the UCC, but not the Church of the Nazarene, churches that had been declining financially before 2008 seemed to be hardest hit. But the researchers found that these churches tended to adjust to a lower income by giving less to their denominations. Although figures from the Great Depression were available only for the Church of the Nazarene, the researchers found that indicators such as indebtedness, and changes in income and property ownership were significantly higher in the 1920s and ‘30s as compared to 2010. But, as during the Depression, recovery among churches may be slow and the impact may be felt even more strongly in the future as churches spend their reserves.
04: Religious-based mutual funds that are considered “socially responsible investments” (SRI) are more stable than secular SRIs, most likely due to the former’s particular moral orientation, according to a paper presented at the SSSR conference.
The growing field of socially responsible investing has sought to inject a moral tone into the financial market by avoiding companies engaging in what are considered unethical practices and policies, as well as by galvanizing shareholders to advocate for social change in some companies. Religious groups increasingly form a significant part of SRIs. Jared Peifer of Cornell University compared religious SRIs with secular SRIs as well as with religious mutual funds that are not SRIs (Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is the only such religious non-SRI).
It has been debated whether secular SRIs are more stable than other mutual funds, but researchers in general have ignored the religious affiliation of such investments. Peifer found that religious SRI funds are less responsive to lagged performance and experience less volatility than secular SRI funds. Since religious non-SRI assets are also less stable than religious SRI assets, he concludes that the moral attributes of socially responsible fund activity, such as screening morally questionable companies and its practices for its investors and advocating for change, “represent a strong force in producing high levels of asset stability in religious SRI funds.” These findings suggest that religious morality can have an “especially potent impact on financial behavior.”
05: Although a good deal of attention has been focused on the growth of what is called the “new Calvinism” among American evangelicals, a recent poll by the Barna Group finds that the Reformed movement has not greatly expanded among churches in the last decade.
The Barna study finds that the percentage of pastors identifying their church as “Calvinist or Reformed” has remained unchanged for the last decade (31 percent). Pastors who describe their church as Wesleyan or Arminian (stressing free will) are down slightly from 37 percent in 2000. But Barna finds that there has been a growth of attenders in Calvinist churches, which typically drew 80 adults per week in 2000, compared to a median of 90 attenders in the 2010 study.
But Wesleyan and Arminian churches also reported growth during this period (increasing from a median of 85 adults to 100 currently). Interestingly, the study finds that a significant percentage of pastors in the charismatic and Pentecostal denominations, which have traditionally been considered Arminian, described their churches as Reformed.
06: Chinese-Americans make up the largest unaffiliated population in the U.S., although, unlike many secular Americans, they draw on Chinese popular religion for their strong family lives, according to a paper by sociologist Russell Jeung of San Francisco State University.
Speaking at the meeting of the SSSR in Baltimore, Jeung noted that 39 percent of Chinese-Americans are secular. While Chinese popular religions are undergoing a revival in the Chinese diasporas in many countries, this is not the case in the U.S. Jeung said that there is little structural support or institutional space for Chinese popular religions in American immigrant communities. There is criticism that popular religion leaders have little training in English. Instead, familialism, stressing family rituals and devotion, has supplanted religion for many Chinese-Americans.
Second-generation Chinese-Americans were also distanced from Chinese popular religion, although there are differences between the Cantonese, who are more favorable to these practices, and the Mandarins, who make up the ranks of science professionals with a stronger secular identity. Jeung argued that ChineseAmericans are distinct from other secular Americans who embrace experiential and materialistic values due to their strong family ties. Their strong sense of family ties and obligations often draws on Chinese popular religion, such as in the area of veneration of ancestors, even as they downplay its spiritual elements.
07: A comparative study of congregations in Switzerland and the U.S. finds that American congregations are stricter, more politically pronounced on the left–right spectrum, and tend to link patriotism with religion. Preliminary findings from the study, conducted by Jörg Stoltz of the University of Lausanne and presented at the SSSR meeting, seemed to show some evidence for the market theory, holding that American congregations behave more like firms than do Swiss congregations.
“They go more into evangelizing, they put on more of a show [and] they offer more non-religious goods,” Stolz said. American congregations are much less permissive concerning moral values applied to their members, such as prohibiting co-habiting couples from membership/leadership roles (more than 85 percent of Swiss congregations would allow such participation, compared to less than 60 percent of American congregations). Stolz found that the American pattern of differentiation of religion from the state in the U.S. gave its religious groups a greater tendency to be more politically pronounced and place themselves along the left–right spectrum; far more Swiss congregations described themselves as “moderate.”
Interestingly, Swiss congregations of almost all denominations tended to have groups that meet in order to discuss politics (50 percent of Swiss mainline Protestant congregations have such a group, compared to about 10 percent of U.S. mainline churches). American congregations dwarfed their Swiss counterparts in displaying the flag in their places of worship. Class differences showed up stronger in American congregations, with affiliation to a certain congregation serving as a social marker, perhaps even being a way of showing a degree of respectability, according to Stolz.
08: Declines in religious practice may be related to economic wellbeing, but not so much because prosperous societies provide “existential security” as much as the way in which consumer and leisure activities tend to replace religious activity, according to Jochen Hirschle of the Fern Universität in Germany.
Hirschle presented a paper at the SSSR meeting outlining an alternative to the prominent theory advanced by Ronald Inglehart and Pipa Norris, who argue that prosperous societies with rising GDPs (gross domestic products) are more secular than poorer ones because they offer “existential security” in which religious “goods” or sources of consolation and reassurance become less important. The researcher finds that although GDPs have risen sharply in Western Europe and the U.S., the general trend toward more security and stability had ended by the 1970s. Even if existential security has not decreased, the evidence shows that it has not increased significantly enough to explain recent declining rates in religious practice, according to Hirschle.
He looks at the variation between the GDPs and church attendance levels in 20 European countries and tests whether the variables of existential security or consumption best explain the drop in religious involvement. Along with GDP to determine the level of existential security, Hirschle uses figures on the number of doctors per 10,000 inhabitants and expenditures on social welfare. He also uses surveys on the frequency of attendance at consumption-related cultural events.
As expected, he found that the higher the GDP, the greater the frequency with which the population engages in consumption-related leisure activities and the lower the church attendance level. But neither investment in the health-care system nor expenditures in social welfare accounted for declining church attendance. Yet the effect of the GDP vanished as soon as the measure for the proliferation of cultural activities was included in the analysis. Hirschle concludes that “[t]hese results suggest that the effect of economic growth on church attendance could indeed … be mediated by the spread of consumption activities rather than by the increase of existential security.”
09: The various traditions or parties in the Church of England, especially Anglo-Catholics and lowchurch evangelicals, are growing further apart, especially as the former party liberalizes in areas of theology and moral conservatism, according to a report in the biannual Journal of Anglican Studies (Vol. 8, No. 1).
Authors Andrew Village and Leslie Francis surveyed 5,967 ordained and lay Anglicans and found a breakdown of 42 percent Anglo-Catholic, 40.5 percent “broad church” (meaning those with a religious orientation combining the various traditions) and 17.0 percent evangelical. The sample was drawn from readers of the Church Times, which has a large readership among Anglo-Catholic and broad church members, but Village and Francis note that there were enough evangelical respondents to make a meaningful comparison. They found that there was an overall decline in conservatism in all traditions, but this was less evident among the evangelicals compared with the other groups.
The conservatism found among Anglo-Catholics was more along the line of preserving church traditions, such as the liturgy and an all-male priesthood, while this group was actually the most liberal on moral and theological grounds, such as gay rights. The findings support the perception that the Church of England is increasingly divided, with much of this division caused by the “sharp reduction of theological and moral conservatism among Anglo-Catholics and some broad church members.” These divisions were not strongly present among older Anglicans, leading Village and Francis to argue that the Church of England is likely to “enter a prolonged phase in which differences between traditions will become much more marked than they have been for generations.” Although the issues go deeper than homosexuality, it is likely that this concern is the “presenting issue that points to a more profound difference in the way that faith is understood and expressed.”
(Journal of Anglican Studies, http:// www.journals.cambridgeorg/ast)
10: Stability and even growth rather than decline characterize recent church attendance patterns in Britain, according to the Christian Research Association.
The figures showed Church of England attendance holding fairly steady since 2001 at just under 1.2 million. Catholic attendance leveled off at 900,000 in 2005, while Baptist Union attendance has increased modestly since 2002 to 154,000 attenders. The figures surprised some observers in a society where only about seven percent attend services, but most church leaders acknowledged that it will take more growth to see any significant changes in the churches, according to a report in Christianity Today (November).
11: Nominal Christians in Great Britain are more likely to see immigrants as a threat than more committed and church-going Christians, according to a study by Ingrid Storm of the University of Manchester.
In a paper presented at the SSSR meeting, Storm analyzed attitudes toward immigrants based on the 2008 International Social Survey and other data from 2000, such as the British Social Attitude survey. She found that nominal, non-practicing Christians were more likely to say that immigrants were a threat to society than both practicing Christians and the unaffiliated.
Storm said that this tendency of nominal Christians to have a high level of “xenophobic” attitudes may be due both to their largely cultural attachment to Christianity. They are skeptical about religion and yet have a cultural Christian identity—ingredients that could lead to seeing Muslims, the main British immigrant group, as a threat.