The untold stories of American religious life

Yes, interest in organized religion is declining. But that’s not the only story you can tell about American religious life

In recent decades, the biggest story in American religious life has been about decline.

Congregations are shrinking. Churches are closing. Religious “nones” are on the rise.

What gets lost amid all the panel discussions, think pieces and survey reports on these trends is the fact that faith groups are far from dead. As sociologist Mark Chaves puts it, “Even though decline is happening, religion remains, by world standards, very vibrant in the U.S.”

“Decline is an important story and we should keep telling it. ... But we should also be telling stories about what’s happening among people who are still in church,” he said.

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In a new report featuring findings from the National Congregations Study, Chaves takes his own advice. He and his co-authors closely examine what’s going on within American churches and highlight a number of surprising — and little-discussed — trends.

“You can use these data to tell a story that’s something different than the usual decline story,” said Chaves, who directs the National Congregations Study and is also a professor of sociology and religious studies at Duke University. The ongoing study is a nationally representative survey of congregations that was first conducted in 1998.

Among the trends highlighted in the report is the growing racial and ethnic diversity within churches across the U.S.

When the survey was first fielded, fully 71% of Americans congregations were predominately white and non-Hispanic. Over the next two decades, that figure fell nearly 20 percentage points to 53%.

“Even though churches do remain highly segregated places in general, they’re less so than they used to be,” Chaves said.

Similarly, although the U.S. religious landscape continues to be dominated by Christian churches, it’s gradually becoming more diverse.

“Taken together, there are now about as many synagogues, mosques and Buddhist or Hindu temples in the U.S. (9% of all congregations) as there are Catholic parishes (6% of all congregations),” researchers noted in the new report.

Here are some of the other findings highlighted by Chaves and his co-authors:

  • Members of smaller congregations donate more money to their house of worship than members of larger congregations.
  • Worship services today are more likely to be informal and feature expressive activities like hand raising than they were in the past.
  • Women increasingly hold leadership roles in their churches. The latest wave of the survey (conducted from 2018 to 2019) found that 14% of U.S. congregations are led by women. Nearly 9 in 10 houses of worship now allow women to serve on their governing boards.
  • Members of politically liberal congregations are much more likely than members of politically conservative congregations to say their church would publicly endorse political candidates if legal prohibitions on that practice disappeared. In general, “liberal churches are more often politically active than conservative churches,” Chaves said.
  • More than half of U.S. congregations (54%) allow openly gay and lesbian people to become church members. That figure has increased substantially in recent years.

Chaves hopes these data points and others shared in the report, which is written for a general audience instead of a scholarly one, help people better understand how their congregations’ worship practices, community programs and policies compare to the rest of the country’s.

“Everybody knows their own situations. Results like these help people put their own situation in a broader context,” he said.