Faith Futures: An interview with Mark Chaves

Ray Waddle

Worship services are getting more informal. Churches are hurrying to take the gospel online. White congregations are quietly becoming more ethnically diverse. Church leaders, meanwhile, are still overwhelmingly male, and most congregations lean conservative.

   These are some of the details emerging from a fresh portrait of American church life as seen in the National Congregations Study (NCS), a far-ranging survey directed by sociologist Mark Chaves, a prominent interpreter of contemporary religious life.

   The NCS differs from other surveys on American religion by focusing not on individual beliefs but on what people do together in congregations. The NCS has been tracking church trends for a decade now, collecting data in two waves, first in 1998, then again in 2006-07. Some 2,740 congregations have participated in the survey, reporting details about their worship style, social outreach, politics, and other aspects of practice and identity.

   “These data will keep sociologists and professional religious observers busy for years, and they will inform all manner of religious leaders, from small-town clergy and megachurch pastors to seminary presidents and denomination heads,” Chaves writes.

   See the full NCS report at

   Chaves, a professor of sociology at Duke University, has an M.Div. degree from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University. His most recent book is Congregations in America (Harvard University Press, 2004).

   This transcript, prepared by Reflections editor Ray Waddle, is adapted from interviews with Chaves in July 2009 and from information supplied by the NCS report.

REFLECTIONS: The National Congregations Study says only 17 percent of Protestant congregations describe themselves as mainline, while 43 percent call themselves evangelical. Is it time to discard the “mainline” label? Is the term no longer helpful description for that group of Protestant churches (United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian-USA, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and others) that once held cultural sway?

CHAVES: If we use numbers rather than perceived social influence to define mainline, then American mainline religion is Catholic, Baptist, and non- denominational. Catholicism is mainline in some parts of the country, while evangelical denominations are mainline in other regions – for example, the Southern Baptist Convention in the South and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the Upper Midwest.

Also, the presumed equivalence between “mainline” and “liberal” might need to be re- evaluated: only 9 percent of congregations describe them- selves as theologically liberal.

On the other hand, there are important theological ideas and cultural priorities

shared by traditionally defined mainline denominations. These churches are most committed to ecumenicalism, have pushed hardest for inclusivity in their leadership (first for African Americans and women, and now, with serious ongoing debates, for gays and lesbians), and identify with the National Council of Churches. Moreover, when they mobilize politically, these churches still tend to position themselves on the liberal side of policy debates.

Whatever terms are used, it is worth noting that, numerically, the traditional Protestant mainline is not the default religion in America. It is not even the default Protestant religion in America, and has not been for about two decades.

REFLECTIONS: What are the prospects for mainline churches? Are they shaped now by a “narrative of decline”?

CHAVES: It’s important to distinguish between denominational infrastructure and local congregation- al life. Much mainline discouragement is tied to the deterioration of regional or national infrastructures.

The resources for maintaining those extensive offices, oversight boards, consultancies, and support systems are in decline. In many cases, these infra- structures got built up in the heyday of the 1950s and 60s, the baby boomer period, and now demographic declines in fertility rates are working against some of those denominations.

I’m not sure we’d have quite the same narrative of decline if it weren’t for all the built-up infrastructure. It has been valuable in lots of ways, of course. But a question to ask now is: Will we miss it? Will we have to reinvent it?

Meanwhile, the decline narrative is defied by thousands of mainline congregations that are hugely healthy and vibrant. They aren’t going away. The United Methodist Church alone has 30,000 churches. Some mainline congregations are in decline, but that’s true of Southern Baptist congregations too.

REFLECTIONS: Your research says female clergy continue to lead only a few congregations (37 percent lead liberal churches, but only 8 percent of congregations overall have female clergy leadership), despite the strong numbers of women in seminaries. Why the lack of progress for women?

CHAVES: First, though the percentage of women enrolling in Master of Divinity programs grew dramatically in recent decades, that percentage peaked in 2002 at 31.5 percent and fell slightly to 30.6 per cent by 2006, according to the Association of Theological Schools. Second, women with an M.Div. are less likely to pursue pastoral ministry than men, and when they do work as pastors they are less likely to report satisfaction with their jobs than their male colleagues. Third, and perhaps most important, several major religious groups still do not permit women to lead congregations. Even within denominations that ordained women for decades, many congregations are still reluctant to hire women as their main clergy person.

REFLECTIONS: Do you think this picture will change?

CHAVES: The percentage of congregations led by women should increase in the coming years as clergy from younger, more female cohorts replace clergy from older, almost completely male ones. But the presence of women in congregational leadership will be widely variable across denominations and religious groups. The overall percentage of congregations led by women likely will remain well below 30 percent for the foreseeable future.

REFLECTIONS: Despite lots of talk about diversity and immigration, there are still very few truly multicultural churches. Does the NCS point to other trends?

CHAVES: Yes, what’s happening is there are fewer all-white congregations in the U.S. today. I think that’s a trend that’s been under the radar: more and more predominantly white congregations have at least some Latino, Asian, or African American presence. For instance, the percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some Hispanic participants increased from 57 to 64 percent.

This raises an interesting question: will a congregation be affected by the presence of even just a few African Americans, Hispanics, or recent immigrants? John Green, a University of Akron professor and a leading expert on religion and politics, has said that congregations are easier to politicize when they are more homogeneous. Is a clergy person with even one black family in the pews likely to talk in quite the same way about race and social welfare issues as he would if that family was not there? Is a congregation with even one Latino family likely to approach immigration reform in quite the same way? How this increasing pluralism might change congregations deserves additional research and reflection.

REFLECTIONS: Your data say the average congregation has just 75 regular participants. But the average person worships with about 400 other people. Are these numbers compatible?

CHAVES: The statistics represent two different perspectives on the same congregational data. Even though the average congregation has only 75 regular participants and an annual budget of $90,000, the average person is in a congregation with 400 people and a budget of $280,000. The size of the average congregation – 75 – has not changed since 1998 despite the proliferation of those very large Protestant churches we call megachurches. Nevertheless, one fact is fundamental: Most congregations in the United States are small, but most people are in large congregations.

REFLECTIONS: Was it always the case that most people are concentrated in just a few large churches?

CHAVES: Statistically that’s generally what happens, because churches are never all the same size. But what we have seen since the 1970s is an intensification of that trend: more and more people are concentrated in the very largest congregations. Mega- churches are only the tip of the iceberg. The movement of people from smaller to larger churches is much broader and deeper than the proliferation of stereotypical megachurches. These days, the largest 10 percent of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers.

We need to think about what this means, because it has enormous consequences in American church life. It means that most seminarians come from large churches (since that’s where most people are), but most clergy jobs are in small churches. It means that pastors of the largest churches wield political power inside denominations that may be proportional to the size of their congregations but disproportional from a one-congregation, one-vote point of view. It means that denominational officials can serve the most people by concentrating their attention on just the largest churches. But that strategy can leave most congregations out of the picture. When confronted with a policy decision, should you ask what the impact might be on most churches, or what the impact might be on most churchgoers? That is a tough question.

REFLECTIONS: Is there a limit or pattern to how big these churches get?

CHAVES: The big churches are getting bigger,though they are not necessarily the same churches year after year. What the research shows is: if you become one of the Top 20 largest churches in your denomination, the half-life is about 30 years. That is, only half of those churches will be in that Top 20 list in 30 years. The reason is they get overtaken by the next wave of big churches. The next wave usually gets there very fast, making their gains with new kinds of organization, new energy. That seems to be a principle of cultural change.

That said, there has to be a limit to this increasing concentration, since we’re not all going to wind up in one big church. I studied this trend up to about 2000, and at that point it looked like concentration was still increasing. There was no sign of a plateau. Perhaps we have reached a plateau since then. We need to update that research in order to know.

REFLECTIONS: What about the future of small congregations? Is it a good time to be a small church, or an unusually tough time?

CHAVES : The challenges facing smaller churches are perennial. But some recent trends have exacerbated that. Because of urbanization and suburbanization – world trends – many rural areas where smaller churches reside are depopulating. Also, the modern pattern of the two-career family makes it harder to move to a small community where there might be fewer employment opportunities for the non-clergy spouse. And the trend of people entering ministry at an older age means they likely will have higher salary demands, something that smaller churches have trouble meeting. Finally, the economics of running a church have changed, making it harder for a smaller church to maintain quality. You have to be a bigger church than you used, with a bigger budget, in order to offer a youth ministry or even to support a full-time senior minister.

REFLECTIONS: You note the trend toward informality as a strong mark of change in congregations. One explanation is a trend away from an emphasis on belief and doctrine and towards an emphasis on experience and emotion. You also suggest informality reflects changes in society itself. Is informality an inevitable effect of the spirit of democracy and equality?

CHAVES: It might have to do with rising education levels – more and more people getting a college education. A consequence of that is the breakdown of big status differences between people. When more people have access to education, it’s easier to imagine a sense of equality. An exception to this is the doctor’s office. We still call the physician “Dr.” It’s a way of recognizing a big gap in knowledge between patient and expert in this case. Nevertheless, I don’t think we still recognize that sort of knowledge gap when it comes to clergy and religious leaders, and perhaps that helps push worship in an informal direction. But I’m speculating here.

REFLECTIONS: Can the informality trend go on indefinitely? In the NCS report, you raised the possibility of a backlash of formality. I know of a Presbyterian congregation that built a cathedral-like sanctuary to protest the informality trend of Sunday morning t-shirt and flip flops, and reintroduce a sense of God’s majesty, reverence, and decorum.

CHAVES: There might be a limit to informality.One researcher I know uses a fashion example to illustrate cyclical cultural change. Women’s skirts get shorter and shorter, but there’s a limit. So fashion turns, and they go the other way. There have been times in American history when the trend went toward formality – times of upward social mobility, when it was the thing to do to control your emotions, look professional, act formal.

But there are ways to get back to formality without reproducing the signals of formality of the past. Cultural change usually happens gradually. Innovators take pieces of existing practices and put them together in new ways – but not too new, or you look weird.

On the other hand, some have questioned whether informality is the best way to frame the change we see underway in congregations. Maybe it’s a matter of participation versus audience – greater worship participation versus feeling like a spectator.

REFLECTIONS: You are tracking a surging,enthusiastic use of technology in congregations – an increase in websites, Facebook, video projection during services. What ramifications do you see for congregational life?

CHAVES: The embrace of technology raises questions that congregations need to think about. How do congregations manage and pay for new technologies? How do congregations decide what to emphasize about themselves on their web sites? Since web sites make congregations more visible to each other, will clergy and other congregational leaders monitor and influence each other more than before? Will there be even faster and more widespread mimicking of successful congregations? Will congregations conduct Bible studies online? Provide pastoral care? Maintain friendships? Already some people claim to be members of virtual congregations. They claim to use new technology the way early Protestants used the printing press – the message remains the same, only the medium has changed. But new technologies always produce unintended social effects. Will congregations’ use of email create or exacerbate digital divides, since some members still do not have access to email? How will these members stay in the loop when congregations turn to electronic forms of communication? Will technology make congregations more efficient and innovative, or will it impose new costs without providing clear benefits

Another issue is one I heard raised by a colleague. If churches start taping the entire service and posting it on the web site, what about that moment in the service when people get up and speak their personal concerns or testimonies? Should their personal details go public for all the world to see and hear? What are the ethics of that? Will it have a chilling effect on what church members say at the service if they know they are being taped? Also, will it affect the content of the sermon? Or will it make the sermon better, if a minister knows so many more people might hear it?

REFLECTIONS: As NCS director, you have now overseen two waves of national congregational data since 1998. Will there be a third wave?

CHAVES: I hope so. It is a matter of getting funding to do it. The first two waves produced very rich data; we are continuing to write about it. Now that we’ve done it twice, we are identifying some trends. If we could do it a third time – or more than three times, and more frequently than every eight years or so – then we could see more precisely how these trends are moving and how fast or slowly change is really happening.


SIDEBAR: Sex and the City of God … Social Attitudes at Church

• 51 percent of congregations do not allow women to be full-fledged senior clergy.

• 33 percent do not allow women to preach at a main worship service.

• 13 percent do not allow women to teach a class containing adult men.

• 54 percent of congregations allow cohabiting heterosexual couples to be full-fledged members.

• 28 percent allow cohabiting heterosexual couples to hold volunteer leadership positions.

• 38 percent of congregations allow gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships to be full- fledged members.

• 19 percent allow gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships to hold volunteer leadership positions.

• 60 percent of congregations allow pro-choice individuals to be full-fledged members.

• 86 percent of congregations allow pro-life individuals to be full-fledged members.

• 72 percent of congregations allow moderate drinkers to be full-fledged members.

Source: National Congregations Study


SIDEBAR: Theme and Variation … Subjects of Rising Importance at Church

• More congregations consider the Bible to be literal and inerrant, increasing to 83 percent in 2006-07, from 76 percent in 1998.

• Congregations conducting voter registration increased to 18 percent in 2006-07, up from 8 percent in 1998.

• The number of churches that described them- selves as right in the middle politically increased to 35 percent from 31 percent.

• The number of churches that organized a group to discuss or learn about another religion rose to 25 percent.

• Congregations hosting classes on English as a second language rose to nearly 6 percent.

• The number of congregations hosting meetings about lobbying nearly doubled to 8 percent.

• More congregations met to hear assessments of community needs – 48 percent in 2006-07, compared to 37 percent in 1998.

• The percentage of churches that said they would apply for government money to support human services programs increased to 47 percent.

• The number of congregations that hosted a book discussion group rose to 45 percent, from 29 percent.

• The median length of a congregation’s most recent sermon increased to 30 minutes from 25.

Source: National Congregations Study 


SIDEBAR: Sacred Spontaneity … A Surge in Informality in Churches
• Fewer congregations incorporate choir singing into worship, falling from 54 percent in 1998 to 44 percent in 2006-07.

• The number of congregations that use a printed bulletin dropped from 72 percent to 68 percent.

• Far more use visual projection equipment in worship, increasing from 12 percent to 27 percent.
• The number of congregations in which someone other than the leader speaks at worship about a personal religious experience increased from 78 percent to 85 percent.

• More congregations report people spontaneously saying “amen,” jumping from 61 percent to 71 percent.

• More report people jumping, shouting, or dancing spontaneously, up from 19 percent to 26 percent.

• The number of congregations in which people raise their hands in praise grew from 45 percent to 57 percent.

• The number of congregations that use drums in- creased from 20 percent to 33 percent.

Source: National Congregations Study