The Story: An new survey reports five trends in America’s religious congregations: more ethnic diversity, more acceptance of gays and lesbians, increasingly informal worship styles, declining size, and declining denominational affiliation. 

The Background: Nearly all collective religious activity in America occurs through congregations. The National Congregations Study is an ongoing national survey effort to gather information about the basic characteristics of America's congregations and the changes going on within them. The first wave of the NCS took place in 1998, Wave II was fielded in 2006–07, and Wave III was completed in 2012. The study was repeated in order to track both continuity and change among American congregations. The study, released on September 11, draws on interviews with leaders at 1,331 nationally representative congregations and updates data from 1998 and 2006 studies. As Cathy Lynn Grossman notes, non-Christian congregations were included in the study, but there are too few for statistical analysis by topics.

The Takeaways: Some of the more interesting findings from the survey include:

• The percentage of people attending congregations in which no ethnic group constitutes at least 80 percent of the regular attendees increased from 15.3 percent in 1998 to 19.7 percent in 2012. 

• Among predominantly white congregations, the percent of attendees in congregations with at least some Latinos, Asians, or African Americans has increased steadily since 1998. 

• In 2012, clear majorities of churchgoers in predominantly white congregations were in congregations with at least some blacks (69 percent) or Hispanics (61.7 percent), and almost half (48 percent) were in congregations with at least some Asians. 

• In 2012, only 11 percent of American churchgoers were in an all-white congregation. That is approximately half as many as were in all-white congregations as recently as 1998. There is no corresponding increase in ethnic diversity within predominantly black congregations.

• The number of congregations whose leaders said that gays and lesbians could be full-fledged members increased from 37.4 percent to 48 percent. The number of congregations whose leaders said that no volunteer leadership positions were closed to gays and lesbians increased from 17.7 percent to 26.4 percent.

• Although more white conservative Protestants churches expressed acceptance of gay and lesbian members in 2012 than in 2006 (increasing from 15.8 percent to 23.5 percent), there was no increase in acceptance of gay or lesbian leaders (only 4 percent in 2012) within white conservative Protestant churches. 

• The increased acceptance of gays and lesbians among black Protestant churches, white liberal churches, and non-Christian congregations were large enough to produce a significant aggregate change since 1998.

• More people attend worship services containing drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, visual projection equipment, a time during the service when people greet one another, or speaking in tongues. Fewer people attend services that include choirs, and fewer attend services that use a written program. The trend shows more guitar use, less organ use, more services during which people join hands at some point, and fewer clergy wearing robes. 

• Data indicate that American congregations, on average, have either remained stable in size since 1998, or have somewhat shrunk since 1998. 

• The median of regularly participating adults in the average person’s congregation increased from 275 in 1998 to 280 in 2006, and increased again to 301 in 2012. The median attendance at all weekend worship services at the average person’s congregation increased from 325 in 2006 to 400 in 2012. 

• Even though the size of the average congregation has declined somewhat since 1998, the average attendee is attending a larger congregation in 2012 than he or she attended in 1998 and 2006. 

• In 1998, key informants from 18 percent of congregations, containing 10 percent of religious service attendees, said that their congregation was not formally affiliated with a denomination, convention, or a similar kind of association. Those numbers increased to 24 percent and 15 percent, respectively, in 2012.

• The median denominationally affiliated congregation gave 8 percent of its income to the denomination in 1998 and only 4 percent in 2012.