Duke Receives $1.5 Million Grant to Study America’s Evolving Congregations

Research from Lilly Endowment grant assesses how America's religious congregations are changing over time

Photos of various kinds of American religious spaces, including a synagogue, chapel and mosque.
Duke Receives $1.5 Million Grant to Study America’s Evolving Congregations. Photos by Wally Gobetz and Jeff Zoline via Flickr.

Duke University will use a $1.5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to expand research on America's religious congregations to assess how they are changing over time, Valerie Ashby, dean of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, said Thursday.

These changes range from shifts in the demographic makeup of local churches to trends in congregational worship practices.  

The grant will fund the fourth wave of the National Congregations Study (NCS), conducted at Duke. This ongoing survey collects and disseminates information about programs and staffing at American churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship. Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity, directs the NCS.

The widely cited NCS findings are often used by religious leaders, journalists, scholars and policymakers to gain a deeper understanding of U.S. religious communities. For example, NCS data have documented increasing racial and ethnic diversity in American congregations, and have informed policy debates about how congregations contribute to community well-being.

“Congregations are a vibrant part of American life regardless of where they meet. This survey provides valuable insight into how they change in reaction to and in service of our communities,” Ashby said. “The opportunity to repeatedly survey congregations over a long period of time is especially useful for understanding trends in American religious life, and we are deeply grateful to Lilly Endowment for its sustained support.”

More than 3,800 congregations participated in the first three waves of the NCS, which took place between 1998 and 2012. Information gathered covered a range of congregational characteristics, including worship activities, finances, staff configurations and connections with other religious and community groups. The latest wave will continue to track trends in those areas, but will also explore such topics as congregations’ social media use, leadership challenges and wellness activities.

“This new funding will enable us to update and expand the solid base of knowledge we’ve built so far,” said Chaves, who directs the NCS and specializes in the social organization of religion in the United States. “I’m eager to see what we learn in this next wave of data collection about congregations’ leadership patterns, social and political activities, and the many ways that they contribute to communities.”

Chaves holds joint appointments in the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and Duke Divinity School.

Lilly Endowment has a long history of making grants to Duke. Recent grants from the foundation include $6 million to support Duke Divinity School’s leadership development programs for religious leaders, $250,000 to address the education debt of seminary students, and $500,000 to strengthen preaching resources through a partnership involving Duke Divinity School, Duke Chapel and the Duke Libraries.

“The National Congregations Study is a trusted source of information about American congregations,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “Pastors and religious leaders routinely draw on this important study to understand trends in congregational life, assess their own ministries and make plans for their future. Mark Chaves and his team at Duke are outstanding scholars, and we are pleased that this grant will extend their critical research and provide up-to-date information about what is happening in congregations.”

Lilly Endowment’s latest grant will also count toward Duke Forward, the $3.25 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign that ends on June 30. Every dollar donated to Duke's 10 schools and units, Duke Medicine or university programs and initiatives counts toward the campaign.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based, private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by three members of the Lilly family -- J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons J.K. Jr. and Eli -- through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. In keeping with the wishes of the three founders, the Endowment exists to support the causes of religion, education and community development. Its grantmaking in religion focuses on supporting efforts to strengthen the leadership and vitality of Christian congregations throughout the country and increase the public’s understanding of the role of religion in American life.