More Americans belong to religious congregations than to any other kind of voluntary association. What these vast numbers amount to--what people are doing in the over 300,000 churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in the United States--is a question that resonates through every quarter of American society, particularly in these times of "faith-based initiatives," "moral majorities," and militant fundamentalism. And it is a question answered in depth and in detail in Congregations in America.
Drawing on the 1998 National Congregations Study--the first systematic study of its kind--as well as a broad range of quantitative, qualitative, and historical evidence, this book provides a comprehensive overview of the most significant form of collective religious expression in American society: local congregations. Among its more surprising findings, Congregations in America reveals that, despite the media focus on the political and social activities of religious groups, the arts are actually far more central to the workings of congregations. Here we see how, far from emphasizing the pursuit of charity or justice through social services or politics, congregations mainly traffic in ritual, knowledge, and beauty through the cultural activities of worship, religious education, and the arts.
Along with clarifying--and debunking--arguments on both sides of the debate over faith-based initiatives, the information presented here comprises a unique and invaluable resource, answering previously unanswerable questions about the size, nature, make-up, finances, activities, and proclivities of these organizations at the very center of American life.
Considering how ubiquitous religious congregations are in America, it is surprising that social scientists had never carried out a statistically reliable survey of them before the 1998 National Congregations Survey. Principal investigator Chaves reports here on some of its more striking findings, based on a treasure trove of data from 1,236 congregations that reflect the diversity of the more than 300,000 congregations in America. (While non-Christian religions are growing, their numbers are so small that Chaves can only analyze the data for Christian and Jewish congregations.) Most relevant for current policy debates, Chaves examines how involved congregations are in providing faith-based social services. His conclusions are sobering: far from offering "holistic" or "transformational" services, congregations generally focus on services "requiring only fleeting contact, if any at all, with needy people." Further, there is no great untapped reserve of resources in congregations, most of which are quite small (60% of U.S. congregations have fewer than 100 active members). But if congregations' social service potential is often overstated, Chaves finds that they are the preeminent venue in American society for the arts, especially music-the only place, he points out, where Americans still regularly sing together. Though Chaves writes with admirable clarity, his Olympian statistical perspective makes for rather bloodless reading. However, he provides a vital empirical supplement to more anecdotal studies, and no doubt to many readers' assumptions.
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Harvard University Press
May 14, 2004
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