A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations -- Review

A Field Guide to U.s. Congregations: Who's Going Where and WhyA FIELD GUIDE TO U.S. CONGREGATIONS: Who’s Going Where and Why. 2nd edition. By Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce.  Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010.  viii + 146 pp.

    There are field guides to all manners of interests, from SUVs to birds.  Each explains the lay of the land, offering interpretations of data and offering guides to understanding aspects of the world in which we live.  So, why not one for the church?  As church people, should we not be interested in the way in which the church exists in the world – its attendance patterns, values, leadership styles.  Such data, of course, is merely descriptive and not prescriptive.  Still demographic studies can tell us much about who we are and where we seem to be going. 

     Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, both Researchers affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), offer us their interpretation of data collected for the 2008 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.  This survey of 5000 churches and 500,000 worshipers provides us with a rather comprehensive (though by no means complete) picture of American congregational life.  In the course of the book, we look at the research, see it interpreted, and are pushed to consider its implications for the future.  We’re reminded that there are both facts and myths present in our conversations, and the data can help us sort out the two.  The only caveat on this survey is the over-representation of Mainline Protestants (about 54%) in the survey and the absence of all but one Orthodox communion and the absence of the Southern Baptist Convention.  But, for those involved in Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches, this information should prove invaluable.

    So, what does the “church” look like as it spreads across the nation?  What does it value and who values it?  What are we seeking when we enter communities of faith?  Is it fellowship, worship, service opportunities?   What does religious leadership look like and are we happy with what we see?   The results of the survey may surprise you.  Over all, Americans seem to be  happy with their churches and with their leaders.  It could be that they are like ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand, or they simply find that the church as they know it, fulfills its purpose in their lives. 

    A majority of church members believe that their leaders are good fits – though many Protestant pastors aren’t so sure and Catholic priests seem more confident than their parishioners’ responses might allow.   Yes, there are dissenters, but they’re in the minority (even if it’s often a vocal one).  You will learn that across the age span, the typical worshiper is a female (around 60% in every category, from young too old) and white (again the sampling could be enhanced by tapping into the growing numbers of people of color in our churches).   A sign that something might be amiss is that fact that while the average age of worshipers over the age of 15 stands at 54,  the average age of American over the age of 15 is 44.  That is a ten-year age gap, which seems significant and might explain why there is a preference for traditional hymnody in the survey.  Equally interesting is the fact that the  typical worshiper is wealthier and better educated than the average American.   That might come as a surprise to some – but again it might be due to the sample.  As for the clergy, there is increasing evidence that the pool is aging, with many newer clergy being second career.  Consider for a moment that the median age of clergy in the Catholic Church is 61 and among Protestants its 55. 

    As a pastor, I found very intriguing the discussions of what we value in church.  The results of the survey  may surprise some readers.  It’s not social interaction or even pastoral care that we value most – instead it’s the Lord’s Supper (but that may have to do with the presence of Roman Catholics in the survey),  sermons and traditional music.  Lest that third piece either confirm your own prejudices or surprise you – consider that contemporary music comes in fifth, right after social justice emphases, and it dominates among the under-40-crowd.  As for social activities and meeting new people through church, only 12% of the people surveyed thought that this was of great importance.  While Bible study garnered the support of about 14% of respondents, only 5% marked adult church school, which again shouldn’t surprise anyone looking in on Sunday School classes.  This means that the pulpit remains the primary place of religious education.  The low percentage given to the value of social activities seems to suggest that we find our friendship circles outside the church.  It also seems to suggest that we generally come to church to worship God, and perhaps engage in service activities.  If we find friendships within the church, that’s an extra and not an expectation.

     The level of satisfaction with the church as it is, may surprise.  The age and gender gaps are worrisome, but not surprising. Still, while largely satisfied with the way things are, that doesn’t mean that the people aren’t open to new ideas.  The survey suggests, for instance, that 62% of people are open to new things, and 49% believe their congregations are already implementing new measures.  Now, we might not be moving fast enough, but at least there is openness here.  In that report, we can find a sense of hope.  .
    This is an easily read book, one filled not just with statistics and interpretations of data, but also charts, and even cartoons, which help give a sense of what is happening in the church today.  Woolever and Bruce have done an excellent job providing us with a field guide that church people will find useful. 


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