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The Philadelphia Story:
Preliminary Findings from the Philadelphia Census

Ram A. Cnaan
Associate Professor of Social Work
Associate Director, CRRUCS
Director, Program for the Study of
Organized Religion and Social Work
University of Pennsylvania

Little is known about the life of congregations in one urban area. Our knowledge base is so limited that we do not know the number of congregations in the city, their denominational composition, their geographical location, their membership, and most important to us their contribution to the civic society of Philadelphia. To remedy this void in our knowledge, we undertook in February of 1999 the first ever congregational census of one large urban city.

We located congregations by merging some twenty different lists of congregations (from city tax records to the Yellow Pages and including many denominational lists), by asking people to identify missing congregations, and by walking the streets. Presently, we estimate that there are some 2,000 local religious congregations in Philadelphia.

According to the 1998 U.S. Bureau of Census data, there are approximately 1.46 million people living in Philadelphia. Given our estimate that there are 2,000 congregations in Philadelphia, we estimate that there is a local religious congregation for every 730 city residents. The George H. Gallup Institute in Princeton, New Jersey has found that about 40% to 50% of all citizens report membership in a religious congregation. Thus, we estimate that in Philadelphia there is one congregation for every 290 to 365 residents interested in religious affiliation--a neat estimate given that, as our survey suggests, the average number of congregational members in the city who attend services at least weekly is 257. However, when we looked at the number of people who are active congregational members, that is attend at least once a month, the number jumped to 373.

Congregations are spread throughout the city. In fact, if someone were to walk from one congregation to another, the longest possible distance they could walk is 0.88 mile. In many neighborhoods, congregations are much closer to each other.

Because this study deals with the community-serving urban ministries of diverse religious organizations, the term "congregation" is used to comprehend church, synagogue, mosque, ashram, and other organized faith-based groups. The popular definition of congregation is limited to the notion of worship with emphasis on the place of worship. However, the role of congregations in today's society is highly complex. Congregations vary by size, structure, denomination, political orientation, governance, theology, doctrine, and worship practices. Our working definition of congregation is any organized religious group that meets the following seven criteria:

1. A cohesive group of people with a shared identity;

2. A group that meets regularly on an on-going basis;

3. A group that comes together primarily for worship and has accepted in common certain teachings, rituals, and practices;

4. A group that meets and worships at a designated place;

5. A group that gathers for worship outside the regular purposes and location of a living or work space;

6. A group with an identified religious leader; and

7. A group with an official name and formal structure that conveys its purpose and identity.

Systematically counting congregations is difficult, time-consuming, and costly for many reasons:

1. There is no single, agreed upon definition of congregation;

2. Congregations are not required to register with the IRS or any other public authority or registry;

3. Congregations, like other organizations, go through stages of birth, death and even mergers;

4. Many congregations are reluctant to provide any information about themselves;

5. Most attempts to count congregations have been narrowly focused and made by denominations interested almost exclusively in their own members;

6. Many congregations are not accessible by phone, do not respond to mailed questionnaires, and operate at limited or irregular hours.

Thus, at present, we can only estimate the number of congregations. Our list was drawn from several sources--Yellow Pages; public records (for example, city tax office data); groups of clergy and other project advisors; denominational offices; ecumenical organizations; personal contacts; referrals from interviewed clergy; and field work by researchers surveying certain neighborhoods block by block (seek an unlisted church and sometimes you find one). To date, we have compiled a list of about 2,000 local religious congregations in Philadelphia. We doubt that there are many more out there than we have found.

In-depth interviews with senior clergy or other key informants from each congregation in the list were carried out by trained interviewers. The interviewer called the congregation to schedule the interview and went to the congregation to conduct the interview. The interviews were face-to-face and done on the congregation premises. No telephone interviews were allowed. An average interview lasted about three hours and often required more than one meeting.

The first part of the interview (the General Form) gathered background information about the congregation, its history, membership, financial information, staff, governing structure, and relations with the wider community.

The second part (the Inventory of Programs) compiled information about the congregation's social services (that is, non-religious services to society). The interviewer covered 215 areas of possible social and community involvement, with numerous follow-up questions concerning the formal or informal nature of the program, where it was provided, and so on.

The third part of the interview (the Specific Program Form) was used to gather information about the most important social service programs provided by the congregation, up to a maximum of five programs. With regard to these five programs, the interviewee was asked detailed questions about the program’s history, legal status, staffing, who benefits, how many times a week/month/year it was offered, and much more. Due to the length of interviewing time, congregations with more than five social programs were asked to choose only the five "most representative of their work," and to tell us in brief what other services or programs they provided.

All interviewers received extensive pre- and in-project training, supervision, and oversight. They were expected to attend weekly meetings and to share with other interviewers and program staff their experiences of conducting interviews, difficulties encountered, strategies that they found useful, and so on. A favorite training strategy adopted during these weekly meetings was "interviewing interviewers," whereby an interviewer volunteered to interview another interviewer with all other project interviewers and program staff as observers. Interviewers found this strategy useful as it generated lively discussion, enabled interviewers to learn from one another, and further standardized our structured interviewing and other data-gathering project protocols.

Key Findings
This sample of 887 congregations in Philadelphia is part of an estimated population of 2,000 congregations.

The average active membership size of the congregations in our sample is 373 individuals including children. This number suggests that 51% of Philadelphia’s population belong to a congregation.

About one-third of the congregations in our sample reported facing financial difficulties while less than 10% reported being financially strong and viable.

The most frequently mentioned social problem affecting the community was substance abuse (84.1%) followed by quality of public education (78.6%) and drug trafficking (77.5%). Poverty and unemployment (77% each) came next indicating their inter-relatedness.

Most congregations (781; 88%) reported at least one social program that serves the community. Furthermore, on average, each of the 887 congregations reported providing 2.3 different community-serving programs.

Of the 887 studied congregations, 211 (23.8%) reported to offer at least one of three services to prisoners and their families: prison ministries, programs for prisoners’ families, and youth offenders.

Of the 887 studied congregations, 300 (33.8%) reported to offer at least one of three after school services: tutoring services, after school recreational care, and after school homework programs.

Of the 887 studied congregations, 142 (16%) reported to offer at least one of the mentoring programs: mentoring/rites of passage and collaboration with Big Brother/Big Sister and Boys to Men.

Of the 887 studied congregations, 200 (22.5%) reported to offer at least one of the pre-school services: daycare, nursery schools or serve as sites for Head Start programs.

Of the 887 studied congregations, 415 (46.8%) reported to offer at least one of the summer programs: summer camps and/or summer programs for teens.

Congregations are also involved in providing educational services for adults: 128 congregations (13.3%) are involved in adult literacy programs while 109 (12.3%) are involved in GED (high school equivalency) educational programs and 126 congregations (14.2%) are involved in computer training for adults.

Only 118 congregations (13.3%) hold worship or prayer services in collaboration with others. Nearly a third of the congregations (294; 33.1%) collaborated with other faith-based organizations to develop and deliver community service programs and a slightly larger fraction of congregations (338; 38.1%) collaborate with secular organizations in delivering a service.

Of the 887 congregations we surveyed, only 62 (7%) reported being familiar with Charitable Choice. Only two reported having formed a committee or group to draft a grant or contract proposal.

The monthly replacement value of an average congregation in Philadelphia is estimated at $9,490.54 or an annual replacement value of $113,886.48. We assess the annual replacement value of the entire body of congregations in Philadelphia at $227,772,960.

Visit the web site of the Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work to read several of the articles from this study, including, 

Cnaan, R. A. & Boddie, S. C. (2001). Philadelphia census of congregations and their involvement in social service delivery, Social Service Review, (75)4, 559-580. (pdf)

Cnaan, R. A. & Boddie, S. C. (2001). Black church outreach: Comparing how black and other congregations serve their needy neighbors, CRUCCS Report 2001-1. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. (pdf)

Cnaan, R. A. (1997).Social and community involvement of religious congregations housed in historic religious properties: Findings from a six-city study, Philadelphia: Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work, University of Pennsylvania. (Word document)




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