Nearly two-thirds of U.S. congregations maintain strong ties to their religious denominations, debunking the widely held belief that affiliation with major religious groups has declined, according to the largest study ever of congregational behavior, which was released yesterday.
Such identification, the researchers said, defies the claim of many sociologists that American faith groups have entered a "post-denominational era" in which personal spirituality and needs have preempted loyalty to a single religious heritage.
"The [overall] vitality of these congregations is pretty stunning," said Carl S. Dudley, who with project co-director David A. Roozen determined that 62 percent of all congregations have strong denominational loyalties.
The interfaith survey, "Faith Communities in the United States Today," involved 14,301 congregations in 41 denominations or faith groups. It was conducted by researchers at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and released yesterday at Holy Trinity Cathedral Center in New York.
The survey confirms that the growth of less hierarchical, more charismatic congregations and smaller U.S. faiths such as Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is "rapidly putting a new face on American religion" and diminishing the dominance of traditional churches, Dudley said.
It also concluded that religious history is especially important to ethnic groups, with 64 percent of Latino congregations and half of black congregations responding that their churches are a primary means of preserving cultural heritage. Fewer than one-third of white congregations emphasize religious history in the same way.
The 68-page report verifies the rapid growth of evangelical Protestant congregations and the declining membership of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and other mainline Protestant groups.
But Dudley and Roozen, of the Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research, said religious "trend trackers" have not adequately noted the corresponding slowdown in new church development among Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox populations, and the surge in new congregations of Baha'is, Muslims, Jews and Mormons in the last 20 years.
Newly organized Catholic parishes at mid-century represented about 10 percent of all new churches, Dudley said in an interview. That portion has dropped to 5 percent, while the combined percentage of new Baha'i, Muslim, Jewish and Mormon congregations has increased from about 3 percent to more than 20 percent, he said.
Evangelical Protestant congregations make up the largest portion, 58 percent, of new congregations.
The two-year study was designed to help local congregations develop programs to attract and retain members and provide services to the needy.
Findings have been posted on the institute's Web site at
Individual churches, synagogues and mosques can plug in their own statistics and attitudes for comparison with other congregations and denominations.
"There's nothing comparable in the way of benchmark information on congregations," said James D. Davidson, a sociologist of religion at Purdue University. "It's very unusual and very much needed."
In an observation that could have a long-range impact on worship, the study found that many of the healthiest congregations -- measured by membership growth and financial stability -- offer alternative worship styles that appeal to younger worshipers, with electric guitars and keyboards rather than pipe organs and pianos.
Such congregations are likely to be evangelical Protestant, with authority based "in the Holy Spirit" rather than in creeds or reason. Rock bands and contemporary gospel artists frequently take part in worship.
David Wallace, dean of Presbyterian-affiliated Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said traditionalists will have to accept that many potential members, particularly families with children, "will expect the church to be more sensitive and more concerned about contemporary expressions of worship."
In African American churches, that means the focus "will be more on gospel-style music," Wallace said. "Younger people will want to see rap music as part of the worship experience as well."
Dudley and Roozen pointed to another unexpected trend: a "dramatic shift" from Southern to Western states in the largest number of new congregations, because of migration patterns. "Congregational development in the West surpassed even the South in the last decade," they wrote.
Researchers believe the diversity of the participating congregations has produced survey results that represent "about 90 percent" of an estimated 325,000 houses of worship in the United States.
Participants included Protestants; Roman Catholics; Eastern Orthodox; Reform and Conservative Jews; Mormons; Muslims; Unitarian Universalists; and Baha'is. Denominations that declined to participate included Jehovah's Witnesses; Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod; Church of God; Salvation Army; United Pentecostal Church Inc.; and Baptist Bible Fellowship International.
Among the other findings:
-- For reasons that are unclear, the authors said, congregations led by seminary-taught pastors and rabbis are "far more likely to report" a lack of clear purpose and to feel threatened by changes in worship, and they are less inclined to deal openly with conflict.
-- Half of the congregations in the United States were founded before 1945. Half of all congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults, and one-fourth have fewer than 50. One in 10 have more than 1,000 adult participants.
-- Community outreach, including soup kitchens and homeless shelters, "is far greater than many estimates suggest." Although suburban churches are less likely to offer such ministries, the "support for soup kitchens in the new suburban areas seems particularly surprising."
-- The adage that "Sunday morning is the most segregated hour" is true, but it is largely because society in general remains segregated. Worshipers "represent a mirror image of the racial composition" of the areas where their congregations are located.
-- Advertising and promotional campaigns energize current members but are less effective in attracting new people.