Changes in the Pews

April 1, 2009
Church pews


Churchgoers might have noticed some changes in their congregations recently. According to Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke, it's likely that they're not alone.

Chaves is the director of the National Congregations Study (NCS), an ongoing national initiative to gather information about the basic characteristics of America's congregations. An initial survey took place in 1998, and the second survey was conducted in 2006-07. The study was repeated in order to track both continuity and change among American congregations.

Based on the responses of over a thousand U.S. congregations from across the religious spectrum, the nation's churches are increasingly diverse. Over the past decade, congregations have become less ethnically homogenous and more technologically savvy. 

The results of the second survey, published in Sociology of Religion, show significant changes from 1998. Predominantly white congregations reported small but significant increases in racial and ethnic diversity. Similarly, congregations claiming no Asian or Latino members decreased in the same period. By tracking these incremental changes, says Chaves, lead author of the journal article, sociologists can learn more about trends in religious life than by studying historically integrated congregations.

The use of information technology such as e-mail and websites went up dramatically since the original survey. Raising questions about the consequences of embracing these new forms of communication, the data suggest that a "digital divide" exists between poor and rich congregations, with the former being slower to make changes. Chaves says he believes that the results also point to fascinating issues in American religious life: What process will worshippers undertake when searching for a new church after moving to a new area, or will the needs of all congregants, young and old, be met as printed mailings dwindle?  

Results from the survey, available on the NCS website, will help religious leaders across the country tailor such services as religious education, social ministries, and worship to meet the changing needs of their congregations.