Counting the faithful with church roll data

Counting the faithful with church roll dataHow many Baptists live in your community? What about Catholics or Lutherans? How many Jews or Muslims are there?

From 1850 to 1936, you could find answers to questions like these in U.S. Census results. But the U.S. government dropped a question about religious affiliation in 1946, partly because the Christian Scientists denomination had concerns about invasions of privacy.

That left little demographic information about religious organizations. When the Census Bureau tried to revive the question for the 1960 Census, opposition from religious groups caused the agency to scuttle the plan.

Fortunately, journalists can find answers by analyzing the "Religious Congregations & Membership in the United States: 2000" survey (formerly Churches and Church Membership in the United States) conducted every 10 years by a group of religious organizations.

Led by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, the group started to conduct its own census of religious group membership in the early 1950s. The survey provides the best available information on the membership of religious bodies in the United States.

More than three-dozen news organizations recently used the 2000 data to examine religious beliefs and attendance in their communities.

Tracking membership

The Palm Beach Post examined church membership in South Florida and found that Palm Beach County was the second-most religious county, based on the percentage of people who claim some type of religious affiliation. The paper included color maps and graphics to enhance its stories.

The Charleston Daily Mail did a story showing West Virginia ranked second among the states in the number of congregations per capita.

In contrast, the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune found that Washington ranks next to last among the 50 states in church attendance and membership, dropping from 47th in 1990. One-third of Washington residents attend or belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, compared with one-half nationally. The (Portland) Oregonian found similar results in its review of the religious census.

The Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., used the data to look at religious groups that claimed the survey underestimated their membership. Mike Corn of the Hays (Kan.) Daily News found that several of the reported figures in the survey conflicted with numbers provided by local religious groups. For example, the census showed that church membership for several congregations in one county had declined. Corn traced the decline, not to membership losses, but to counting problems in the study. The churches had been included in the population counts of another county.

Limits in data

The current census is a survey of about 150 religious organizations. The study is the only census to provide a county-by-county breakdown of religious participation. The study provides the total population for a county, number of religious bodies and number of members and adherents.

The study is limited in many ways because the numbers are reported by the religious organizations and not all groups participate. In the 2000 census, 14 religious groups declined to participate, including some predominantly black congregations. Several groups, however, participated for the first time, making comparisons between census years difficult.

Also, many Muslim groups have taken issue with the religious study, saying that it underestimates the total number of their members. An additional problem with the data is the way membership is defined by the religious groups that report. While many include only those who attend services on a regular basis, other groups include anyone with an affiliation to the religious body, including children.

To standardize the data, the ASARB uses adherents rather than members to examine growth of religious organizations. Adherents are adult members and their children. Membership totals include only those who are full regular members of a religious group.

Another problem with the data is that in a few counties, the number of adherents actually exceeds the total population. The ASARD says this could be because many people live in one county, but attend church in another.

Despite these limits, the data is the best available information for journalists reporting on religious group numbers.

Ron Nixon is the training director for IRE and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.