Do Congregations Set Up Barriers To Entry?

Do congregations unwittingly set up “Keep Out” signs to entry? A simple fact: a majority of congregations in the U.S. do not look demographically like their neighborhoods. Sadly, in terms of makeup and self-identity, who they are and how they identify themselves, most congregations do not reflect the neighborhood where they are located. It’s not a good fit. There is no match.

Cynthia Woolever, Director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, has researched this issue of congregational barriers.  Her study of nearly 2,000 congregations nationwide looked for evidence of ways in which congregations either match or fail to match their surrounding communities demographically.

Here are a few of findings:

  • Most congregations are less racially diverse than their surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Only a few congregations (2%) are immigrant enclaves in which immigrants are in the majority.
  • Young adults are vastly underrepresented in congregations compared with surrounding community.
  • They attract more worshippers 45-64 years of age and a higher percentage of older worshippers than the surrounding community.
  • They have more college educated persons.
  • The greatest mismatch concerned unemployment with 95% of congregations having more unemployed in the surrounding community than in church.[1]

What’s the problem? Invisible barriers often keep away would-be congregants who simply “don’t feel the love” when they seek to connect. In sociological parlance, there exist “symbolic boundaries” between the in-group (inside the congregation) and the out-group (out there in the neighborhood).

We experience invisible barriers every day in a variety of circumstances without giving much thought to it. As Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion, puts it, “The lines of division that separate religious traditions, ethnic groups, and racial categories can be understood as symbolic boundaries—conceptual categories present in the public mind in ways that also shape who interacts with whom and on what basis.”[2]

The result: failure to thrive.

[1] Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, Places of Promise (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 63-64.

[2]Robert Wuthnow, Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible Belt State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 3.

Photo: Dhester, Morguefile license.

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