NEW YORK (AP) -- Half of U.S. religious congregations are growing and most are thriving, especially those that embrace contemporary worship and social outreach, according to a new study released Tuesday.
''Worship is at the core of growth and financial stability in America,'' said Carl Dudley, who co-directed Faith Communities Today, a profile of religion in the United States by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.
The study of 14,301 houses of worship and 41 faith groups is billed as the broadest survey of its kind ever conducted in the United States, which has more than 300,000 congregations. The research was done over five years with support from the Lilly Endowment and the faith groups.
It found that 51 percent of congregations, especially those on the West Coast, report growing memberships.
''The West Coast has lots of population growth, and it's also been a real source of religious innovation,'' said David Roozen, a sociologist who co-directed the study with Dudley. ''Because the West is so secular, religious groups have to work hard and creatively.''
Another factor contributing to membership growth: Congregations are sponsoring more social ministries that reach out to the poor. Most offer a food pantry; more than one in three are involved in tutoring youth; and two in three sponsor a thrift shop.
The study said all faiths support outreach ministries, but that black Protestant groups appear to be somewhat more active than others.
''Congregations are America's crisis counselors -- of food, clothing, shelter. Their contribution to the physical welfare of the community is remarkable,'' said Dudley, a Presbyterian minister and professor of church and community at the Hartford Seminary, where the institute is based.
The survey found strong interest in the kind of faith-based programs President Bush has promoted, Dudley said.
It also found that half of all American congregations have fewer than 100 regular worshippers, and 52 percent of them are in small towns.
To draw more worshippers, many of today's religious services require less formal dress and emphasize storytelling more than doctrine, the survey found. Many Christian services include ''less God as judge, and more Jesus as friend,'' Roozen said.
The study warns that ''change can prove costly -- leading to conflict that impacts member growth, new volunteers and financial support.''
Jane Redmont, author of ''When in Doubt Sing,'' an overview of contemporary prayer in America, said churches should not use only their numbers of worshippers to gauge success.
''We have to measure success by the standards set by our faith as well as by the quality of our conversation with contemporary society,'' she said.
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