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Exploring Religion

Session 3: Overview

Tools for Exploring Local Religion

Learning objectives

  • Master the skills needed for identifying local congregations and completing a demographic profile of their neighborhood.
  • Understand how to conduct an ethnographic study of a local congregation

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For the last two weeks we have looked at religious groups from afar.  You were introduced to what major world religions believe and how they worship; and you explored many religious groups at the national and international level.  This week we begin giving you the tools you need for exploring religious congregations in your local neighborhood – or any neighborhood you choose. We explain how you can identify congregations in your neighborhood, and we ask you to conduct a demographic profile of the neighborhood where the congregation is located.  This assignment provides you with the information you need for conducting in-person visits to the worship services of two (or three?) congregations.  

For this week, however, you only need to complete the demographic profile for each congregation and complete the readings and videos outlined below. Plan to visit the worship services, and complete the observation tool for each visit, in the weeks that follow. Your completed observation tools and the paper comparing the two congregations are due at the end of session 11.

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The first step is using a GIS tool to identify congregations and to explore their neighborhoods.  The activity “Exploring Congregational Neighborhoods” provides you with the guidelines you need for identifying congregations in your area of interest and for completing a demographic and economic profile of the neighborhood where each congregation is located.  You will be asked to select two congregations affiliated with religious groups that are new to you.  If possible, select one congregation that follows a world religion other than Christianity and select a second congregation affiliated with a Christian denomination unfamiliar to you.  If you are Baptist, don’t visit a Baptist congregation and if you are Catholic don’t visit a Catholic congregation. The braver you are, the more you will learn and the more interesting the visit will be.

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After selecting your two congregations, and completing demographic and economic profiles of their neighborhoods, the next step is to conduct your observations. Although the assignments resulting from these visits are not due until module 10, you should plan the visits early. This allows for more time to write the research paper and to secure additional information, if needed.  Read the “The Research Project: Requirements and Guidelines” closely (under Activities below).  Along with offering an Observation Tool for you to complete after visiting the congregations, this document provides instructions on completing the research paper and helpful tips on visiting congregations.

The remaining activities, readings, and videos offer more details and data on congregations at the national level in the U.S.. Your previous explorations have uncovered the diversity of religions across the globe, here you will look at the diversity across congregations in the US.  You will find sharp differences across denominations and sometimes within them too.  The interview with Rich Houseal, one of the principal investigators for the U.S. Religion Census, will introduce you to many of the challenges researchers face when counting religious groups and their members.  Unlike the U.S. government census, or most of the other collections we will use in this course, this census is conducted almost entirely by volunteers.

Photos provided by Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke. For more information on the photos, see Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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