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The National Congregations Study

The absence of a comprehensive list of congregations from which to draw a sample has been a major obstacle in survey research on congregations. The National Congregations Study (NCS) used a relatively recent innovation in organizational sampling methodology to generate a high-quality, nationally representative sample of congregations. The key innovation is the insight that organizations attached to a random sample of individuals constitute a random sample of organizations. It therefore is possible to generate a representative sample of organizations even in the absence of a sampling frame that comprehensively lists the units in the organizational population. One simply starts with a random sample of individuals and asks them to name the organization(s) to which they are attached. This procedure--called hyper-network sampling--has been used to sample other types of organizations; the NCS is the first study implementing it for congregations.

Wave one research (1998) The 1998 General Social Survey--an in-person interview with a representative sample of non-institutionalized English-speaking adults in the United States--included a set of items asking respondents who say they attend religious services at least once a year to report the name and location of their religious congregation. Congregations nominated in this way constitute the NCS sample. The NCS then gathered data from these congregations using a one-hour interview with one key informant--a minister, priest, rabbi, or other staff person or leader--from each nominated congregation. Every effort was made to conduct these interviews by telephone, but we made in-person visits if telephone contact was difficult. Ninety-two percent of the interviews were completed by phone. The NCS response rate is 80%; we have complete data on 1236 congregations.

Wave two research (2006-07)

The 2006-07 National Congregations Study is a major survey of a nationally representative sample of 1508 congregations from all over the United States. It documents the work, programs, activities, and changes of America's religious congregations. Researchers gathered this information by interviewing one knowledgeable leader from each congregation either by telephone or in person.

The 2006-07 Wave II of the NCS looked at many of the same subjects examined in the 1998 study. The 2006-07 study also examined new subjects that were not examined in 1998. Additionally, 264 congregations were surveyed in both waves of the NCS. This “panel format” allowed Wave II to examine stability and change in these congregations since 1998.   Wave II data was gathered between May 2006 and April, 2007, and will soon be available on this web site.    This wave also included a Spanish language questionnaire for use with Spanish-speaking congregational leaders.

Together the NCS data sets fill a void in the sociological study of congregations by providing, for the first time, data that can be used to draw a nationally aggregate picture of congregations. NCS data can be used to address many questions, including but not limited to the following: What is the size distribution of the national congregational population? What is the nature of congregations' relations with denominations? What do worship services look like in American religion? To what extent do congregations engage in politics, social service delivery, and other community activities? In what ways do congregations with different social and organizational characteristics vary in their activities?

A Few Selected Findings from the National Congregations Study Wave One

1. Size and resource distributions are quite skewed. Although most congregations are small, most people are in congregations that are large. The median Congregation has only 75 regular participants (and an annual budget of only $55,000), but the median person is in a congregation with 400 regular participants (and an annual budget of about $210,000). From another angle, only 10% of American congregations have more than 350 regular participants, but those congregations contain almost half of the religious service attenders in the country. Size and resources influence almost every aspect of congregational life, and these findings make clear that the typical congregation's situation is not at all equivalent to the congregational situation of the typical churchgoer.

2. Worship and religious education are the core activities of religious congregations.

Significant minorities of congregations engage in social services and political activities in serious ways: about 12 percent of congregations have a staff person devoting at least 25 percent time to social services; about 17 percent have distributed voter guides. But virtually all congregations regularly produce worship services and virtually all hold religious education classes of some sort. For all the attention that congregations' social service and political activities have received, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that these do not represent the core activities of most congregations.

3. The secular arenas with which congregations have most interaction are not politics or social services but rather education and culture/arts.

This might be an important fact to keep in mind when considering the sorts of community activities and secular organizations with which seminary students should be encouraged to develop familiarity and expertise.

4. Congregations are not necessarily community or neighborhood organizations.

Most congregations (61 percent) draw at least half their people from within a 10-minute drive, but only 20 percent draw as many as a third of their people from within a 10-minute walk, and 20 percent of congregations have at least a quarter of their people living more than a 30-minute drive away. The extent to which congregations are truly neighborhood based is variable and is likely to influence a wide range of congregational activities.

5. More recently founded congregations are different than older congregations.

Two differences have emerged in analyses to date: controlling for other things, more recently founded congregations have more informal and enthusiastic worship, and more recently founded congregations are less likely to engage in activities that build bridges between congregations and communities outside the congregation. It is difficult to tell whether these findings indicate trends in American religious culture or, rather, a perennial difference between younger congregations and older, more established ones. Either way, the meaning of these differences is worth pondering.

Wave Two data and findings will be released Fall 2008

For more information, please contact:
Dr. Mark Chaves, mac58@soc.duke.edu

Or visit the web site dedicated to this project at www.soc.duke.edu/natcong

You can download and do your own analysis on the Wave One dataset by visiting the American Religion Data Archive at www.thearda.com

You can also read the article, The National Congregations Study:  Background, Methods and Selected Results
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