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Looking inside Presbyterian congregations

New research examines how Presbyterians are changing

March 29, 2011

LOUISVILLE

Remember the spring of 2001?

George W. Bush was the new president, the September 11 attacks were months away, and iTunes had just been introduced.

The world has changed in unforeseen ways since then. Have Presbyterian congregations and their worshipers experienced remarkable changes, too?

Responses from 40,000 worshipers in a national study of Presbyterian congregations help us answer that important question.

How have worshipers changed?

Worshipers are older: Almost half of worshipers now are at or near retirement age. The median age of Presbyterian worshipers was 58 in 2001. (The median is the point where half of worshipers are younger and half are older.) Today the median age is 61. For every worshiper between the ages of 15 and 25 there are more than six worshipers over the age of 65. A decrease in the share of PC(USA) worshipers who have children living at home ― down from 38 percent in 2001 to 34 percent now ― goes along with this trend.

Even more worshipers have a college degree: Presbyterians were well-educated in 2001, and that’s even more true today. Six in ten have a college degree, up from half in 2001. Among all Americans only one in four are college graduates. Our well-educated worshipers have gifts and talents to share with their congregations and communities. Presbyterians serve as tutors in local schools, lead community non-profit organizations, and develop specialized ministries, such as health education and arts programs.

Worshipers are more involved than ever in their communities: Presbyterians have traditionally focused on improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods, towns and cities. More than one in three worshipers (35 percent) participate in the community service, social justice or advocacy work of their congregation. In 2001 fewer worshipers (30 percent) reported doing so.

At the same time Presbyterians’ involvement in community service work separate from their congregation has increased. Today almost half of Presbyterians (46 percent) contribute time to their community’s soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity projects, public schools, shelters, scout troops, and a host of other service activities outside their congregations. In 2001, four in ten participated in such activities.

Fewer worshipers experience growth in faith: The majority of worshipers today report no growth in faith or only some spiritual growth. In 2001, one-half of PC(USA) worshipers reported experiencing “much growth” in their faith. Today fewer are growing in faith to that extent (45 percent). How can Presbyterians strengthen their faith? The Office of Theology and Worship provides a variety of resources to help Presbyterians nurture their relationship with Christ, including a quarterly publication, HungryHearts, and information about spiritual practices and disciplines.

In other ways, worshipers remain the same: Despite these changes, numerous other areas of congregational life have remained amazingly stable since 2001. Then and now, six in 10 PC(USA) worshipers are women. Almost seven in ten are married. Half work either full- or part-time. And four in five are members of their congregation (others attend regularly but haven’t joined). Large majorities say they “always or usually” experience God’s presence, joy and inspiration in worship services. And most worshipers report that their spiritual needs are being met there (83 percent) and their pastor is a good match for the congregation (86 percent). Presbyterians continue to find meaning in their congregations.

How have congregations changed?

Congregations increasingly use technology: Like the rest of the world, Presbyterian congregations have embraced new technology. Seven in 10 PC(USA) congregations have a Web site (up from 43 percent in 2001). Church Web sites are used to keep current members informed and to reach new people. Seven in 10 congregations are now using email to communicate with their worshipers. Also, more congregations today use visual projection equipment in worship ― reported by two in 10 today (up from one in 10 congregations in 2001).

Congregations have shifted the focus of their service activities: While Presbyterian congregations serve their communities in a broad range of ways, we’ve noticed some shifts. Fewer congregations today provide direct emergency services ― meals, food or clothing for people in need. Nine in 10 congregations provided emergency relief services in 2001, but only eight in 10 do so today. Yet more today are providing health-related services ― blood drives, health screenings, or health education programs, for example. Four in 10 today focus on the health of members or of those in the community, up from one-third in 2001. Involvement in environmental activities and cultural or arts programs has also increased.

Congregations get by with fewer resources: Today just 15 percent of congregations say their finances are growing, while four in 10 reported financial growth in 2001. In contrast, one-third now say their finances are declining ― up from 20 percent in 2001. Congregations face the challenge of finding creative ways to sustain their ministries during these times of limited resources.

Congregations are changing their worship services: While traditional music is still the norm ― included in the largest or only worship service of more than nine in 10 congregations ― other styles of music are also being used. Praise music, in particular, is heard more often today than in 2001. More congregations now include a time for worshipers to greet one another during the service ― up from three-quarters of congregations in 2001 to four in five today. In other ways, worship has become formal. Today fewer congregations report that worship includes laughter or applause. And teens play a role in fewer worship services today ― not surprising given the increasing age of Presbyterians. Despite these changes, worshipers continue to find the services meaningful.

In other ways, congregations maintain their traditions: We found many areas in which Presbyterian congregations have not changed. Seven in 10 hold just one worship service in a typical week and almost all include singing by the congregation, use of hymnbooks, a sermon, an offering, silent prayer, and a written bulletin in worship. Most say contributions from worshipers and endowments or investment returns are the biggest sources of income. Theologically, most congregations still consider themselves to be more on the conservative side (43 percent today) or right in the middle (42 percent). Large majorities offer religious education classes for children, youth and adults, as they did in 2001. Two-thirds continue to use small groups for sharing or spiritual growth.

Where is God calling us?

This brief overview of PC(USA) worshipers and congregations does not reflect the depth or richness that exists in the denomination’s 10,657 churches. Overall, Presbyterian congregations have abundant strengths, including well-educated worshipers and high levels of community involvement. Yet the strengths in any specific congregation might be different. The challenge for individual congregations is to identify and use their strengths to address two important questions:

  • What is God calling us to do and be?
  • How can we become stronger and more effective?

Sociologist Cynthia Woolever is director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey for U.S. Congregations (USCLS) and professor of religious organizations at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary.

Deborah Bruce is a psychologist and associate research manager in Research Services of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly Mission Council and project manager for the USCLS.

To learn more visit their blog.

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