Magazine article The Christian Century

Views from Pews on Strong Congregations

Magazine article The Christian Century

Views from Pews on Strong Congregations

Article excerpt

Certain assumptions have long been made about what makes for the strongest congregational life--for example, that megachurches provide the best worship experience or that the best churches generally make children's ministries a priority.

But a new study by two social scientists shatters many such notions and finds a wide variety in the strengths of the nation's congregations. "Beyond the Ordinary: Ten Strengths of U.S. Congregations" is the latest phase of published research on results of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey of 2,000 congregations and their 300,000 worshipers taken in April 2001.

Whereas many surveys on congregations have been based on the impressions of a minister or other key leaders, this study determined congregational strengths based on the perspectives of parishioners. "The view from the pew is just different," said coauthor Cynthia Woolever, professor of sociology at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Connecticut.

She and coauthor Deborah Bruce found that small congregations had many of the ten strengths they examined, far more than mid-size and large churches. Congregations with fewer than 100 worshipers and mid-size congregations of 100 to 350 worshipers are "unsung heroes," she said, receiving higher average scores for strengths such as growing spiritually and caring for children and youth than larger congregations.

"Congregations that are very small often feel they just can't do good work," said Bruce, associate research manager in the research services office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). "This [study] certainly refutes this." Despite being limited in clergy--some small congregations do not have full-time pastors--these churches ranked highest in congregational participation, sense of belonging, sharing faith and empowering leadership. …

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