US churches feel beat of change: More diversity, more drums

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Pastor Rick Behrens and Lisa Take perform a song during Sunday morning service at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan., on Jan. 13, 2013. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Pastor Rick Behrens and Lisa Take perform a song during Sunday morning service at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan., on Jan. 13, 2013. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) U.S. religious congregations are marching to their own drums now more than ever.

The National Congregations Study‘s latest look at the country’s churches, synagogues and mosques — the third wave of studies that began in 1998 —  finds more congregations:

  • Open their doors to gays and lesbians in active membership and in leadership.
  • Show racial and ethnic diversity in the pews.
  • Encourage hand-waving, amen-shouting, and dancing-in-the-aisles during worship.
  • Disconnect from denominational ties doctrines and rules that might slow or block change.

The study, released Thursday (Sept. 11), draws on interviews with leaders at 1,331 nationally representative congregations and updates data from 1998 and 2006 studies.  Non-Christian congregations were included in the study but there are too few for statistical analysis by topics.

Duke University sociology professor Mark Chaves, who directed the study, said he was “surprised” by how much the acceptance of gays and lesbians has risen since 2006, the first time the study asked about gay involvement in religious congregational life.

"Church attendees who rock during worship," Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.

“Church attendees who rock during worship,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.

Congregations that “permit full-fledged membership for openly gay or lesbian couples in a committed relationship” climbed to 48 percent in 2012, up from 37 percent in 2006.

Most congregations still draw a line at permitting gays to take leadership positions, though the number of congregations allowing gays in leadership is rising; it stands at 26 percent, up from 18 percent.

A look by regions shows this liberalization roughly mirrors the state-by-state legalization of same-sex marriage, which began in New England then swept down to the mid-Atlantic and west to California by 2012. The stand-out exception: Only about 4 percent of white conservative evangelical or fundamentalist churches permit gays in leadership roles.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholic churches turned more sharply conservative during the years of the study focus. The percentage of Catholic churches permitting full-fledged membership for gays dropped to 53 percent, down from 74 percent of congregations. And those permitting gays in leadership roles fell to 26 percent from 39 percent. 

A church with a sign welcoming gay and lesbian members.

Photo courtesy of Ivan Cholakov via Shutterstock

A church with a sign welcoming gay and lesbian members.

The Rev. James Martin, editor at large for the Jesuit magazine America, observed, “During those years, U.S. bishops were much more vocal against gay marriage. It’s only been in the last year or two — since the election of Pope Francis — that the church has begun opening up on this.”

For women, however, there’s no statistical progress in the NCS study. Despite a handful of recently named women senior pastors, the percentage of congregations with women in the top post has been locked at roughly 11 percent since 1998. Some of America’s largest religious denominations — Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and Mormon — do not ordain women.

For diversity, look to the pews, particularly in predominantly white congregations.

In 2012, 11 percent of congregations had an all-white membership, down from 20 percent in 1998. About a third of congregations have some Hispanics and nearly a quarter have some Asians. Behind the change, Chaves said, are factors such as upward mobility by blacks, increasing rates of interracial marriage and immigration.

Still, in an upcoming issue of the “Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,” Chaves wrote:

“We do not want to overstate the significance of this increasing ethnic diversity within American congregations. Eighty-six percent of American congregations (containing 80 percent of religious service attendees) remain overwhelmingly white or black or Hispanic or Asian or whatever.”

Chaves said in an interview, “On the ground, this means there are more white congregations with a smattering of minorities. However, the percent of mainly black churches with some white people is not increasing.”

The NCS also finds distinctive religious denominational brands are losing congregational market share. Nearly one in four congregations — or 23 percent — described themselves as nondenominational, up from 18 percent in 1998. Nondenominational churches can have greater leeway in leadership, teachings and style of worship.

 "Congregations where gays may be leaders," Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen

“Congregations where gays may be leaders,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen

Look in the aisles for changes in the way people worship. The trend toward informal and entertaining and exuberant worship services, first marked in 1998, continues to climb,  the study finds.

More people now attend congregations where drums are played during the main service —  up to 46 percent in 2012 from 25 percent in 1998. Every tradition from Catholic to Protestant to non-Christian pumped up the beat by 7 to 20 percentage points or more.

The margin of error was  plus or minus 3 percentage points for most findings for the survey. 

Eighty percent of people attending black Protestant congregations reported that people jump, shout or dance during the main service, up from 66 percent in 1998.

And this worship-in-motion trend is increasingly true for people who attend white evangelical conservative or fundamentalist congregations (25 percent, up from 16 percent in the first study).

Other groups — particularly people who worship at white moderate or liberal churches and Catholics — still keep to their seats.

Although more people attend services where worshippers raise their hands during the main service (59 percent in 2012, up from 48 percent in 1998), all the increase was among Protestants, conservative or liberal.

However, Martin of America magazine observed, enthusiastic worship is growing among Catholics in ethnic congregations where the service “has a different cultural flair. You might see something very different at a Hispanic Mass in Los Angeles than on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’s more a cultural divide than a religious one.”

But Chaves wondered if all the spontaneous expressions of enthusiasm during worship affects the religious message. He speculates that there’s “more emphasis on generating a kind of religious experience as opposed to teaching religious knowledge or doctrine.”

"Congregations where gays have full membership," Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen

“Congregations where gays have full membership,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen

Hardly, countered Marcia McFee, a worship consultant and speaker who coaches subscribing church leaders at her web site She works with mainline denominations and churches on enhancing their services with light, sound and motion.

The Christian message should be a “deeply rich sensory experience,” said McFee, so people “can embody that which we proclaim.”

Sit-still-and-listen is not the way many people connect with God, said McFee. “For some,  it doesn’t feel like a spiritual pursuit unless they’re engaged by dancing or drumming or raising a hand or absorbed in rich visuals.”


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  • The statement that Southern Baptist Churches do not ordain women is false. While most do not, the SBC is an association of independent congregations, and ordination occurs at the congregational level. Individual SBC churches have ordained women – I was a member of one such church.

  • Carolyn George

    One of many false “facts” in this article.

  • Byron

    What we regard as fact is often coloured by our biases. If one disputes the facts, it’s best to say which ones are disputed, as Jeremy tries to do. In his case, I think the ones who do ordain women may illustrate the very point of the article. While SBC congregations have autonomy, the denomination has also taken an official position against women in senior pastoral leadership–so those who ordain women may get away with it, while also being rebellious within the denomination.

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  • Tom

    A mixture of good news and bad news, but I suspect it’s more of the latter than the former. I find it rather saddening that so many churches have now embraced homosexual sin. It’s interesting that for a long time, the Catholic church was regarded as having drifted from Scripture, but increasingly they are more aligned with Scripture than other denominations.

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  • rob

    it so popular now days to agree to disagree when people hear about confessional Lutheranism where its members agree only to agree ..

    it often is shocking to the popular Church member who only know how to agree to disagree..

    They just don’t get how whole church body’s are built on confessions where
    all the members confess they agree ..

  • rob

    southern Baptist don’t need no more women pastors they got two well known ones Meyers and Graham. Their women also run most of the congregations of the southern Baptist church , go to a voters meeting see how many men vote .. did you know the women are allowed to vote in their church’s and at most voters meetings they out number the men..
    so if the women want it and the men don’t guess who has to be submissive ?

  • rob

    if southern Baptist really don’t want homosexual to be married in their church’s
    they need to raise their voices in opposition of one of their pastors doing just that.. I don’t see them getting rid of him do you?

    So to me that means there inviting more homosexual marriages by there pastors.

  • rob

    about ten years back they had around one thousand of their southern Baptist church’s pastored by women..

    I think all or at the very least most of the southern Baptist church’s let women vote.

    so if more women show up and vote than men which is very common for that to happen.. The men would be submissive to what the women want . reversing the God given men and women roles in scripture ,

  • rob

    what about Jesus warning about a little leaven leavens the whole loaf?

  • Loren Haas

    The article was a little sloppy here, The referenced article actually says: “do not ordain women or allow them to lead congregations.”
    I do not believe SBC would allow women to lead a congregation. Does anyone have a recent example of an ordained woman leading a SBC church?

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  • Kathleen

    Rob, I am a practicing Lutheran (all my life) and I am not aware of any confessions addressing homosexuality or whether we should raise our hands during the worship service – as to the basic “confessions” such as the Apostle’s and other creeds, I am not aware of any discussion surrounding those. Although Luther did say “sola scriptura” (as opposed to papal fiat), anyone who reads the Bible knows that, at the end of the day, we can’t give credence to it all – stone the adulterer or claim we are without sin and then stone the adulterer? The Bible is inspired by people’s quest to discern the mind of God but Lutherans eat shrimp and worship on Sundays and feel no guilt about it. Sometimes agreeing to disagree is about as close as we can get. At least we freely admit to the disagreements – other churches hold fast to doctrines that a large majority of their congregants ignore on a regular basis. We’re just more honest!!!