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U. S. study: Southern Baptists affirm Scripture, tithing, commitment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When compared with worshipers in other congregations nationwide, Southern Baptists generally are more involved in their congregations, spend more time in private devotional activities, are more likely to be tithers and much more likely to hold a strong view of biblical authority and interpretation, according to the results of a comprehensive “U.S. Congregational Life Survey” conducted last year.

The North American Mission Board’s research services team, which assisted in recruiting Southern Baptist congregations for the survey, reported on findings for Southern Baptists during the SBC Research Fellowship’s annual meeting Sept. 19-20 in Nashville, Tenn. The study, funded by the Lilly Endowment and other sources, included a broad array of 49 faith groups – including evangelical and mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and nondenominational churches.

The overall study involved a total of 300,000 worshipers in more than 2,000 congregations, including 20,000 Southern Baptists in 165 participating congregations. A subset of 2,000 Southern Baptists also addressed issues related to conversion and witnessing that were included in a separate report. The surveys were completed during a Sunday morning worship service during April 2001.

“This was an unusual attempt to survey people in the pew rather than just looking at congregational profiles, or having a congregational leader tell us about a congregation,” said Phil Jones, NAMB’s director of research services. Jones noted that while there are few major surprises in the data, it does reinforce other studies. “I think what we have is new information that confirms some of what we already know and quantifies it a little more precisely. It provides us an opportunity to compare worshipers in Southern Baptist congregations with those in other denominations and helps us see where we have much in common and where we differ.”

The survey found that in many ways Southern Baptist worshipers are similar to those in other congregations. They are predominantly female (60 percent), married (70 percent), with kids (44 percent), averaging 49 years of age (based on a minimum survey age of 15). Incomes also are similar, although Southern Baptists have fewer worshipers with an annual income of $100,000 or more (11 percent versus 15 percent). Southern Baptists also have a lower percentage of college graduates (30 percent to 41 percent).

Southern Baptist congregations, like congregations of most religious groups, tend to be small. The average worship attendance in Southern Baptist congregations is about 80, compared to 90 for other congregations. Although it may seem like a contradiction, most attendees are found in larger churches. This is true for Southern Baptists and non-Southern Baptists as well.

Ethnically, about 91 percent of Southern Baptists surveyed are white. Four percent are black, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Indian or Alaskan native, and 1 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. Jones noted that there probably is some undercounting of non-white racial and ethnic groups because of language barriers and reluctance to participate. While Southern Baptists are less diverse than the U.S. population and all worshipers in the survey, Jones said the survey results show that Southern Baptists are no less diverse than religious groups such as Presbyterians or Lutherans.

In a question about music preferred in worship, traditional hymns remained the most popular for both Southern Baptists and the survey sample at large — with 67 percent and 61 percent preference rates, respectively. Southern Baptists were more likely also to appreciate praise music and choruses; 56 percent responded favorably about the contemporary musical style compared to 33 percent of other worshipers. “Traditional” and “praise” music were the most popular options among all groups in a list of 10 musical styles.

While there were many similarities, traditional Southern Baptists distinctives were evident in a number of categories:

View of Scripture — 71 percent of Southern Baptists said the survey’s most conservative option came closest to their view of Scripture: “The Bible is the Word of God, to be taken literally word for word.” That option was chosen by only 28 percent of all worshipers in the survey. The most popular choice for that group, with 42 percent of respondents, was the statement, “The Bible is the Word of God, to be interpreted in the light of its historical context and the church’s teachings.” That option was chosen by 11 percent of Southern Baptists. Ninety-nine percent of worshipers in Southern Baptist congregations chose options that began with “the Bible is the Word of God.”

Involvement — 71 percent of Southern Baptists surveyed participate in “small groups” such as Sunday School, Bible study or prayer groups, compared with 56 percent of all worshipers. In particular, Southern Baptist participation in Sunday School is three times the national norm. Eighty-one percent of Southern Baptists say they have been given an opportunity to be involved in congregational decision-making, compared to 68 percent in the overall survey. Southern Baptists are also more likely to have positions of leadership in their congregations, 59 percent versus 38 percent for all worshipers.

Giving — The emphasis on the tithe is apparent in the 52 percent of Southern Baptists who report giving more than 10 percent of their income annually, compared to 19 percent nationally.

Personal Worship — Southern Baptists spend more time in private devotions than other groups, with 58 percent reporting “every day or most days” and 22 percent reporting “a few times a week.” Worshipers in general reported 45 percent daily devotions and 18 percent a few times a week. Sixty-one percent of Southern Baptists reported worship and other activities of the congregation helped them with everyday living versus 45 percent for others.

Evangelism — 31 percent of Southern Baptists regularly participate in evangelism or outreach activities, more than twice the overall average (13 percent). While the number who say they “mostly feel at ease talking about my faith and do so if it comes up” is similar to the national norm, the number who “feel at ease … and seek opportunities to do so” is significantly higher (26 percent versus 16 percent.)

Some of the results do raise questions, however, in light of historical Southern Baptist emphases. The survey found, for instance, that the percentage of those attending less than five years who were either returning to worship participation and or had previously never attended any church was not significantly larger than the survey respondents at large.

“Southern Baptists are no more effective in reaching the unchurched (first-timers and returnees) than other religious groups,” Jones said in his report on the survey.

About 50 percent of newcomers in Southern Baptist congregations are transfers from other Southern Baptist congregations, 22 percent came from other denominational backgrounds, 20 percent were “returnees” to church after a long absence and 8 percent had never regularly attended before.

Also, concerns of encroaching universalism in Southern Baptists life were reflected in 21 percent of Southern Baptist worshipers surveyed who believe that “all the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.” Still, two-thirds of worshipers in Southern Baptist congregations disagreed with the statement — about twice the national norm, while 14 percent were unsure.

In other results, Jones noted several findings that he said serve as indicators of spiritual health and vitality in Southern Baptist congregations.

— Six of 10 indicate they have experienced “much” spiritual growth in the prior year.

— 86 percent feel their spiritual needs are being met in the context of their congregation.

— Four of 5 usually experience a sense of God’s presence, joy and inspiration during worship.

— The overwhelming majority believe there is a good match between their pastor and congregation.

— 87 percent affirm that they are encouraged to find and use their spiritual gifts.

— 83 percent have a sense of excitement about their congregation’s future.

— Six of 10 indicate their congregation is always ready to try something new.

For the complete results of the survey, visit www.namb.net/research or www.uscongregations.org.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson