By Deborah Bruce
The U.S. Census Bureau divides the country into four regions—Northeast, Midwest, South, and West—but collects no information about religion. Fortunately there are other sources that provide a look at the religious composition of each region of the country.
The Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS) is conducted every 10 years and collects membership information from denominations and religious groups to approximate a religious census. The Association of Religion Data Archives makes this information available in maps and reports for metro areas, counties, states, and the country as a whole.
Nationally, Catholics represent the largest faith group in the United States, claiming about one in five people (22%). Conservative Protestants are the next largest group, with about one in seven people (14%), followed by mainline Protestants, with almost one in ten (9%). Orthodox and non-Christian worshipers comprise a small part of the population (just 4.8%). That leaves almost half of the population unaffiliated with any religious body (RCMS calls these people "unclaimed.")
But the distribution of these religious groups differs in different areas of the country. What you see in your community is not what others see elsewhere.
Northeast. The concentration of Catholics is largest in the Northeast, where almost two in five people attend Catholic parishes (38% of the population). One in ten people attend mainline Protestant churches, and a few (3%) go to conservative Protestant churches. Also noteworthy in this region is the concentration of Jews—nearly half of the Jews in the whole country live in the Northeast.
Midwest. Only in the Midwest are mainline and conservative Protestants about equally represented, with each group claiming one in eight people (about 13% of the population). Similar to the national figures, Catholics are the largest group in the Midwest (22%).
South. One in four people in the South are conservative Protestants—it's not called "the Bible Belt" for nothing! Baptists and Assemblies of God are two of the larger denominational groups in the South. There are relatively few Catholics and mainline Protestants in the South (about on in ten each).
West. The West is more diverse. It includes the most "churched" state in the country—Utah—in the midst of states with much lower rates of churchgoing. Overall, the West is the least "churched" region. Here, one in four people attend Catholic churches, one in twelve attend conservative Protestant churches, and a few (4%) attend mainline churches.
The religious landscape in the area can influence congregational programming in interesting and subtle ways. In the South, with so many conservative Protestant churches, the practices of those churches sometimes spill over to the other types of churches. Mainline Protestant church in the South may have an increased focus on church school for adults because their neighboring evangelical churches do so. Similarly mainline churches in the Northeast may have relatively low percentages of adults participating in church school because the predominant Catholic churches are less likely to stress the importance of adult participation in religious education.
What religious groups play a major roles in your community? (Find out here: http://www.thearda.com/mapsreports/) Is your congregation in the majority group or part of a smaller religious segment? How might these other groups be influencing the expectations of your worshipers?
Places of Promise: Finding Strength in Your Congregation's Location will help you learn about the role location plays in determining congregational strengths and numerical growth. The accompanying study guide will help you examine your congregation's location.
Religion by Region, a project of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, represents the first comprehensive effort to show how religion shapes, and is being shaped by, regional culture in America.