Hartford study: new reports of slippage in conventional American religion

Hartford Seminary’s Institute for Religion Research released a first-look report Wednesday of a 2008 survey, “Faith Communities Today” (the third such report in the ongoing FACT study series), and the numbers weren’t great.

Labeling their study “the story of an emerging, but persistent and broad based downward drift in congregational vitality,” Institute researchers nevertheless held that not all the news is bad. (For example, it says here a little conflict can make for “vitality-enhancing change”!) Even so, just 19% of congregations described their financial health as “excellent”; and signs of vitality such as mission awareness and worship attendance have slipped in the past eight years.

On Friday, Politics Daily’s Jeffrey Weiss argued that research results on anything related to religion can be notoriously difficult to parse into meaningful bits. But if any of this is any sort bellwether, he writes, then

we seem to be splitting between a significant and assertive minority of truly fervent faithful who are strongly connected to their congregations and are not going away, and a majority of people with nominal faith at best, who have loose or no ties to traditional religious institutions.

The final results of the study are an aggregated data-set of more than 2,500 web-, mail-, and phone-based questionnaires deployed across 12 denominations. Survey participants were “key informants” in congregations — clergy leaders, in other words.

Included among those with oversight to the study is Kirk Hadaway, Chair of Research to the Steering Committee and TEC Program Officer for Research, Evangelism, and Congregational Life. Matthew Price from the Church Pension Group serves the institute’s Advisory Council.

The full report is expected October 15.

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