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Five hopeful signs for U.S. congregations

The number of Americans with no religious affiliation continues to rise. Fewer young people are going to church. And the effects of recession have placed greater burdens on religious institutions in a time of shrinking resources.

How tough have times become?

In one startling example, Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign in six centuries. He declared both strength of mind and body are necessary to oversee the church “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”

Yet there are also more hopeful trends about the health and mission of houses of worship.

The latest wave of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, now available for download and exploration on the Association of Religion Data Archives, provides stark evidence of the aging and shrinking of many congregations. Just a quarter of worshipers in the 2008-2009 survey reported a sense of excitement about the congregation’s future, down from a third of respondents excited about the future of their house of worship in 2001.

But the survey also shares what some may find surprising elements of growth and ongoing strengths in congregations. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey is the largest sampling of worshipers in America, with a total of more than half a million worshipers in more than 5,000 congregations participating in at least one of the two waves.

Here are five hopeful signs for U.S. congregations:

More caring ministries: Congregations and their members are more active outside the sanctuary walls. In the latest survey, 18 percent of worshippers said wider community care and advocacy were one of the three most valued aspects of the congregation; in 2001, just 11 percent ranked community care in the top three. Worshippers in 2008-2009 also were significantly more likely to report that they were involved in social service or advocacy groups outside the congregation and contributed money to a charitable group other than the church.

Climbing the academic ladder: The percentage of worshipers with a college degree rose from 38 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in the latest survey. “In the past, the pastor was often the most educated person in the room – but not any more.” researcher Cynthia Woolever says. And that matters. “These highly educated worshipers have high expectations about the content/style of worship, how decisions are made, and the efficiency of congregational ‘achievement,’” she adds.

Keeping up with the technological times: The 2008-2009 survey found more than three-quarters of congregations had established websites, up from 43 percent in 2001. In addition to keeping members informed of upcoming events, more than half of the sites post sermons and list opportunities for service. Seventy-four percent of congregations also use e-mail in ways that range from publicizing events to sharing joys and concerns of churchgoers and sending out devotional messages.

More diverse leadership: You just have to look around in many churches to notice a gender imbalance. Still, survey researchers say the consistent finding that six in 10 worshipers are women remains one of their most asked-about results. What is growing, however, is the diversity of leadership in mainline Protestant churches, where 28 percent of pastors are women, up from 20 percent in 2001. New research using survey data also finds female pastors are in general more satisfied in their ministry than male pastors and are strong in welcoming new people. Almost two in five pastors of growing churches are women.

Happy people in the pews: Eighty-seven percent of worshipers in the latest survey said they were satisfied with their spiritual life, up from 82 percent who expressed satisfaction in the 2001 survey. More than three in four worshippers say they always or usually experience a sense of God’s presence, inspiration and joy in worship. Nearly nine in 10 respondents said worship helps them with everyday living.

Of course, some analysts would say the high rate of satisfaction in many congregations that are aging and shrinking may also indicate an unwillingness to change to welcome younger generations and new neighbors into the fold.

But that is a column for another day.

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