How Have Churches Changed When It Comes to Race, Size, Worship and the Treatment of Gays?

A new study examining worship environments at 1,331 American churches, synagogues, temples and other houses of worship found that on the whole, the faithful have become more accepting of gays and lesbians, embracing both demographic and tactical changes over the past six years.

The National Congregations Study found that from 2006 to 2012, the number of congregations that were open to allowing gays in leadership roles rose substantially from 18 percent to 26.4 percent, according to a press release announcing the results.

Additionally, the proportion of houses of worship accepting gays for membership during this same time frame rose from 37.4 percent to 48 percent.

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Image source: National Congregations Study/Duke University

Those increases didn’t hold across the board, though: Catholic churches were actually less accepting of gays in 2012 than they were six years earlier. And only 4 percent of white, conservative Protestant churches said in 2012 that gays would be permitted to participate in volunteer positions.

The National Congregations Study also revealed changes as they relate to the size of congregations, demographics and the tactics used in worship over the past six years.

The results showed that American churches are shrinking on average, with the average size of a congregation now at 70 members, down from 80 when the same study was first conducted in 1998.

“The average size of a congregation in the United States is declining,” Duke University sociology professor Mark Chaves explained in a video recapping results. “Interestingly though, the size of the congregation that an average person goes to has increased over time. What that means is more and more people are shifting from smaller congregations to larger congregations.”

There are other changes afoot inside American churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship, including more racial diversity in the pews.

While 20 percent of individuals attending in 1998 attended all-white houses of worship, that proportion has dropped to 11 percent in the latest wave of the National Congregations Study.

“That’s driven by important social changes like upward mobility among blacks and increasing racial intermarriage,” said Chaves, who directs the study. “And, of course, immigration.”

These trends come at a time when many churches are working to adapt to changing technologies and sensibilities. The research found that more people are attending churches and houses of worship where more upbeat music, shouting, dancing and other expressions are prevalent, including the use of visual elements and projections.

“The percentage of people attending services with drums, for example, rose from 25 percent in 1998 to 36 percent in 2006 and to 45 percent in the most recent survey,” the press release read. “The percentage attending services using visual projection equipment rose from 15 percent in 1998 to 32 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2012.”

Chaves said worshippers may be looking for more emotional experiences in the pews.

Read the entire study here

Front page image via Shutterstock.com

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