“There are 350,000 congregations in the US,” says Cynthia Woolever, “and that means that in every community, there is at least one, usually more, that are there providing a safe place for people to gather and have important conversations.”
Woolever, a sociologist of religion, served as the Director of the US Congregational Life Survey, the largest congregational study in the United States. The research team asked people in the pew to complete a survey in worship about the church they attended. By the time the study was over, over a half million people who had participated.
I spoke with Woolever about the importance of congregations in American life. “It’s a myth,” Woolever told me, “that people who attend church are inwardly focused, that they are only concerned about their lives and their families. The opposite is true.”
“The research shows that people who are involved in congregations are more likely to be advocates in their community. They are more likely to contact their member of Congress. They are more like to contact a public official about a problem in the community. They are more likely to attend a public event that’s about something that’s happening in their community. And they are learning those skills of speaking up for something that’s important to them, they learn that in the context of the church and being involved in leadership in the church.”
“We found that people in congregations are often volunteering in their community by serving on the Habitat for Humanity board or helping out with a soup kitchen somewhere, and it’s not a program of the church, but because they are a faithful person, because they are a Christian, they decide they want to do this in their community.”
“When a tragedy happens, this is a good indicator, who is first on the scene? It’s often the religious leaders. They are the ones who open up the building, and say, come in here, this is a safe place to pray, or it’s the place where the emergency check point is. The religious leaders give us an indication of how important the churches are because they are leading the way.” “I think you have to ask, what is the measure of success or what is the measure of impact? And I would argue with anyone that, pound for pound, what congregations and their members are doing has enormous impact in the community.”