Mark Chaves: More worship is more informal

More worship is more informal than even just a few years ago, according to Mark Chaves and the National Congregations Study.

More worship services are more informal than they were even a few years ago, according to the National Congregations Study (NCS). There still is plenty of highly formal worship happening in the United States, but the trend is unmistakable. We asked congregations sixteen questions in 1998 and again in 2006-07 about things that may or may not have happened at a worship service. Without exception, if there is a significant change in the percentage of congregations having any of these features in their worship services, it is change in the informal direction (*note: the change is in points, not percentage).

More worship services now contain drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, calling out amen, visual projection equipment, applause, or religious testimony by people other than leaders. Fewer services include choirs and follow a written order of service distributed to attendees. We didn’t ask about how the worship leader dressed in 1998, but in 2006-07, that person wore a robe or other special garments in only one-third of American congregations.

This trend towards informality is not occurring at the same pace and in the same way within every religious group. Most of the increasing informality in worship is occurring among Protestants—Catholic churches have increased only their use of visual projection equipment and drums—and the increase in jumping, shouting, and dancing is concentrated among black churches. Still, there is a fairly general trend at work here.

The change documented here may not be dramatic, but it is real. How far will American religion move in the informal direction before leveling off at a new equilibrium? Will we see a reaction that pushes worship back in a more formal direction? These are open questions.

Why this is happening also is an open question. A likely possibility is that congregations are partaking of a broader trend in American culture towards informality. People dress more informally than they used to at work and at social events as well as at church or synagogue. When talking with each other, even with people we do not know well, we are less likely to use titles like Mr. or Mrs. or Doctor or Professor, or, for that matter, titles like Reverend or Pastor or Father or Rabbi. We are more likely to use first names, or even nicknames. This is true even when children address adults. Perhaps this worship trend also reflects a long-term trend in American religion away from an emphasis on belief and doctrine and towards an emphasis on experience and emotion.

Wherever it comes from and wherever it is going, informality is on the rise in American congregations.