The Differences Congregational Worship Makes... and Doesn't

Photo by David Ball. Used by permission CC-SA 3.0.
Congregational Worship May not Be "All That" for Many

The Barna Group has recently published the findings of a research project seeking to understand and name the differences attending Christian congregational worship makes in the lives of worshipers. You can read their analysis in their article,"What People Experience in Churches."

When Huffington Post reviewed these findings, their attention grabbing headline was "Churchgoing Has No Effect On 50% Of Americans, According To Survey."

HuffPo was taking liberties with the data, to be sure, but there were indicators in Barna's own article that pointed in that direction. Consider these quotes:

Nearly half said their life had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing (46%).

Even among those who attended church in the last week, half admitted they could not recall a significant insight they had gained. 

Millions of active participants find their church experiences to be lacking. 

In other words, if we're expecting folks attending worship in our congregations to have their lives recognizably altered by that activity alone, or even to find that worship itself gives them regularly memorable direction for their lives, we may be expecting of worship things worship is not likely to deliver for nearly half of those who attend regularly.

What Can Congregational Worship Be for Most?

"Feel part of a group that cares for each other" and "Felt a real and personal connection with God" received relatively high marks (usually well over 50%) across the board, regardless of the size, denominational family (Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Non-Mainline Protestant), or generation of worshiper surveyed.

In short, the primary difference congregational worship makes for most people is a felt sense of connection with God and neighbor.

This should not be a surprising finding if we take a long view of things. The primary function of religion, captured in the etymology of the word religion itself, is "relinking" God, community, and earth. Shared ritual practices, such as congregational worship, have been in nearly every culture the primary means by which religion accomplishes its "relinking" work.

Congregational worship or its equivalent, then, across many times and cultures,  hasn't been primarily about hearing new messages, or serving the poor, or even having one's own life transformed in any way. It's been much more about bringing God and community together in a living encounter here and now where we live.

So perhaps it is that felt sense of connection, more than anything else, that has the most profound impact, perhaps more unconsciously than consciously, on the lives of worshipers in congregations, even those who say congregational worship makes little or no real difference in their lives.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Where does this study suggest room for improvement? The places to look are where there are statistically significant differences on the same item being measured, especially, as I have suggested above, on the categories about feeling a meaningful connection with God and neighbors.

Since the study has an error margin of 3.2% in either direction, there is statistically significant difference between any two columns in the same row on Barna's charts only when the mathematical difference between them exceeds 6.4%. So, for example, in the chart comparing religious traditions, the only item where there is statistically significant difference between mainline and non-mainline Protestants on is whether worshipers gained some new insight in worship that week. This is likely a sign of different cultural expectations of these two traditions. Non-mainline Protestants tend to be far more "message-centered" in worship than either mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics.

On the two most important metrics for worship-- connection with God and each other-- there are two significant statistical differences to heed. 

First, "Mosaics" (those aged 18-27) are dramatically less likely to experience feeling part of a group that cares for them. "Dramatically" is not too strong a word. Only 47% responded positively, compared with figures closer to 70% for every other age group tested. It's not that they are not connecting to God-- there not a statistical difference between them and Busters (28-46) in that category, though there is a difference between them and two older groups (around 70%). It really is that they are not connecting with other worshipers present or perhaps with each other.

What do we do about this? We can certainly work at forging better connections with younger adults, including in worship.

And just as important, we probably could use more research. This was a point-in-time study. It reflects a set of data collected over a short time frame. It would be wise to do a longitudinal study-- one that looks at similar data for this age group over time-- to see whether this outcome is unique for people this age right now, or whether it is not all that atypical for this age group over time. It is quite plausible, for example, that this is a more or less persistent pattern for this age group, though perhaps more pronounced now than in the past. This age group is by far the most mobile and socially unstable age group in American culture. These are persons who may be attending college, graduate or professional schools, (probably nowhere near the congregations they had some previous connections with), just starting out in a career or seeking and perhaps frequently changing jobs, moving frequently, and just beginning to create new social ties or possibly new family ties, whether they choose to get married or are "still looking." In other words, all of their community ties in this stage of life may feel a bit fractured or at least fragile, and that includes relationships with people in congregations. While congregations can and should be sensitive to these realities, there may be relatively little they can do in worship per se to mitigate them, other than finding multiple ways to keep in touch and invite participation.

Second, persons in mid-size congregations (100-299 in average weekly attendance) have a significantly lower experience of connecting with God than in either small or large congregations. On the plus side, 68% do report feeling connected to God in worship. But that's 10% less than in small churches (< 100) and 9% less than large churches (> 300). Persons in midsize congregations are also much less likely to report gaining new insights or being significantly affected by their participation than persons in either small or large congregations.

One thing this tells us is size matters! In a way it's unfortunate the attendance was broken down this way, though, because it masks where the deeper pinch may be felt, somewhere between 150-225. 150 is known as Dunbar's number, the maximum for what anthropologist Robin Dunbar refers to as "unit cohesion." Up to about 150, people in an organization can know everyone else fairly personally, and personal bonds are very emotionally strong. After 150, we really can't. This means after 150, it's no longer personal connections that hold people together-- it's more about common vision and purpose than personal ties. These can become strong ties as well, but when you're in that awkward size from 150-225, the pull back to 150 (and personal ties) can feel much stronger than the push toward 300 and beyond (and ties of vision and purpose).

I suggest we're seeing the tension of this size dynamic reflected in Barna's findings about connection with God and the effect of the congregation on people's lives.

And I also suggest there are things we can do about it. First, be aware that this tension is real and very powerful. Second, be aware that the power of this tension can diminish people's experience of God in worshiping communities of this size. It's not that God is not just as present or that there is something spiritually wrong with the congregation, necessarily. It's that the some of the ways people used to experience God with one another when the group size was smaller don't work when the group size is larger, while at the same time some of the ways people have come to experience God in worship in larger congregations don't quite work well, either-- at least not yet.

Take two practices common in smaller congregations, for example-- the passing of the peace and "joys and concerns." In smaller congregations, everyone may share the peace or shake hands with nearly everyone present. This can take quite some time. And nobody minds. Likewise, the sharing of "joys and concerns," where individuals may stand and share prayer requests and often some extended stories to surround them, is cherished in many smaller congregations. But in both cases, when the attendance starts moving above 150, neither becomes viable anymore. You don't and won't know the people you're shaking hands with. Sharing "joys and concerns" in a group this large, with people you do not know, is more threatening than supportive. And in places where the congregation may have gotten larger than 150, and then tries either to hang on to these practices or re-introduces them, attendance is likely to head back down toward 150 or less in due course.

So what to do? There is no clear blueprint for this-- and anyone who tells you there is is trying to sell you something! But there is at least a direction. Think about it as a trapeze. You will have to let go one trapeze and clasp the one coming if you want to move from one size to the next-- from small toward large. Simply hang on to what you have done in worship as a personal-size congregation, and you will stay stuck in the middle, or perhaps fall back toward the smaller size. You needn't let go all worship practices that presume face to face relationships at once, but you will have to let go some, and more as your size increases. It's a matter of wise pastoral leadership and negotiation with the congregation as the pastor and other leaders help the "post-personal congregation" embrace a vision of a different kind of connection in ministry and mission with one another and with God over time.

So if you find yourself in or leading worship in a congregation this size, acknowledge these realities. Help people understand why their experience of God in worship may seem awkward for a time. And lead well-- by noticing and helping your congregation notice the next trapeze coming, and then leading them and supporting them as they take the leap when the right time comes.