Mark Chaves, the UA Department of Sociology head and author of Congregations in America, has made a career out of studying religion and society. He just received three grants totaling more than $1 million to apply toward the second round of the National Congregations Study. The first round, conducted in 1998, was a novel survey that gathered a wealth of information on congregations from across the religious spectrum. Chaves and others will begin collecting data for the second round in 2006.

What kind of information did you collect in 1998?

Because this was the first ever survey of its kind, we just collected a lot of data about a whole range of congregational activities and characteristics: social composition, what kind of social services do they do--we gathered a lot of data about that--what kind of political activities they do, what kind of religious activities they do. What do they do in worship? Do they speak in tongues? Do they have a choir? Do they hire soloists? You know, just a million different things. ... So now we have this data from 1998; we have this snapshot of the local religious communities in 1998 ... and it's time to say, "Has anything changed?" What's stable? What's the same? We'll also collect some data on things that we didn't examine in 1998.

Like what?

Well, one of the things is conflict--what kinds of conflicts happen in congregations? In 1998, we asked two questions about conflicts. We said, "Have you had a conflict in the last two years that was serious enough that people left?" or "Have you had a conflict in the last years that was serious enough that you had to have a special meeting about it?" Those were our two conflict questions--simply yes or no. No follow-up about it. ... In 2006, we'll follow up, and we'll say, "What was the conflict about?" So we'll gather data about the kinds of issues that are conflictual in American religion at the local level.

How much conflict did you find?

About 25 percent of congregations said yes to those questions. ... We know some of the things that get fought about, but we don't know in what proportion. Are these theological, normative, moral issues like abortion and like homosexuality, or are they more about mundane kinds of issues, about the leadership style of the minister, something about the worship style or something like that? ... We know that people fight about all those things, but we don't know in what proportion.

What changes between 1998 and 2006 will you examine?

The most obvious, I think, is social service activity, especially in the context of the larger Bush administration's faith-based initiative, an effort to direct more public money to religious organizations doing social services. ... It'll be very interesting to see, eight years later, whether the efforts of this initiative (and) all the attention it got made any difference on the ground in the extent to which congregations do social services or collaborate with government.

What did you find about religious congregations and social services in 1998?

On the one hand, there are clearly congregations out there that do a lot of social services that are very significant to their communities. They run job-training programs, feed homeless people--they just do a lot of that kind of thing. ... However, the second thing to say is the average congregation--the typical congregation--does very little. The point I've been trying to make over the last several years, based on our research, is that it's a real mistake to think that these very active churches are the norm or that they could be the model that these other kinds of congregations could emulate, because the average congregation in the United States is small. They've only got 75 people in it. The average congregation only has an annual budget of $55,000. The average congregation only devotes about $1,200 a year to social services. So, the average congregation doesn't do a lot of social services and isn't going to do a lot of social services.

What are the variations among religious traditions and political activity?

Numbers look pretty different across religious traditions.

How so?

There's kind of three, at least, identifiable styles. Catholics are more likely to do this direct-action stuff; black Protestants are more likely to be involved in electoral politics, and conservative Protestants are more likely to do voter guides--I guess that's also electoral politics. The mainline liberal Protestants are kind of spread throughout. They don't stand out in any one kind of style. I've always thought that was an interesting kind of set of patterns.

When will you have results from the 2006 survey?

I'll probably have some results--let's call it early '07.

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