NEW YORK, March 13 (RNS) -- Candles and incense are on the wane in America'sreligious congregations, while the electric guitar and drums are gainingpopularity -- and causing more dissension -- in the country's houses ofworship, a new study shows.

The sweeping study of 41 religious denominations by HartfordSeminary found that churches and synagogues that embrace contemporaryworship styles are also the most likely to increase their membershiproles, but the transition is usually not without a struggle.

"Congregations that seek to change their style of worship have topay the price of conflict," said Hartford researcher David Roozen, oneof the principle authors of the "Faith Communities Today" study,released Tuesday.

The five-year project presents one of the most comprehensive looksinside America's houses of worship to date. The study found a morediverse religious makeup with once-nontraditional religious groups such asthe Mormons and Muslims outpacing the growth of Catholics, EasternOrthodox and Protestants.

Organizers say the project represents 90 percent of all churches,synagogues and mosques in the country, and is the closest thing to areligious census in the United States today. The study is sweeping inits depth, including everyone from Baha'is to Baptists, evangelicals toEpiscopalians.

Among the report's major findings:

  • Half of religious congregations have fewer than 100"regular participating adults," and 88 percent have fewer than 350.
  • Just over half of all congregations -- 52 percent -- are locatedin rural areas, while only a quarter are located in urban areas.
  • Congregational growth has been strongest in the American West,outpacing growth in the South and far surpassing declines in theNortheast and Midwest.
  • The future of American religious life is relatively rosy, accordingto the numbers, with half of congregations reporting some level ofgrowth, while a third have leveled off and only 19 percent have lostmembers. The survey did not look for a total number of Americansinvolved in religious life.

    Two-thirds of growing congregations can be found where much of thegeneral population is now living -- in America's suburbs. Churches andsynagogues say the fastest-growing congregations are the ones that placethe strictest demands on members' time and lifestyles.

    "Despite the challenges of changing community populations and thenatural process of institutional aging, the vast number of congregationsfeel that they have been able to renew their strength and to sustainthemselves," said researcher Carl Dudley.

    Still, there are some troubling undercurrents for congregationslooking to the future and trying to attract younger, unreached people --most often by modifying their worship styles. Often the biggest strainson a congregation come when a less traditional, more informal worshipstyle is adopted and older members feel at odds with their youngercounterparts.

    The study found that the largest congregations are the most willingto change, and older churches face more resistance. Only 37 percent ofestablished churches -- those started before World War II -- welcomedwholesale changes, while two-thirds of younger churches embraced them.

    Half of all megachurches -- those with 1,000 or more regularparticipants -- have changed their worship style, and researchers lookedto instruments as one measure. Only between 10 percent and 15 percent ofolder churches use keyboards or drums, compared with about 30 percent ofyounger congregations.

    The mainstay for most worship -- the piano or organ -- falls from 89percent of older congregations to only 59 percent of churches started inthe past decade. Nearly six in 10 congregations who reported conflictsaid they had also changed their worship "a great deal" in the past fiveyears.

    Roozen said the change in worship style follows a seismic shift inmany Christian churches' approach to God. In the past, God has beenviewed as an angry, judgmental diety. In recent decades, more emphasishas been put on the pesonhood of Jesus, resulting in a more personal andintimate view of God. Less structured, informal music better fits thatchanged view of God, he said.

    "The bottom fell out for many of the mainline churches in the 1960sbecause the worship style didn't work" for the baby boom generation thatwas coming of age, Roozen said. Churches seeking to lure boomers backinto the fold have found they also need to drop the liturgy they hadalways been using.

    The Rev. Richard Houseal, research director for the Church of theNazarene, said the findings present tough choices for churches whosemembers are aging but still want to attract new worshippers. The bottomline, he said, is that "those churches that changed their worship style... were more likely to have grown."

    The numbers also present challenges for religious leaders whostruggle between the stable rural parishes that form the backbone ofmany denominations and the unreached urban centers. Often smaller ruralcongregations have a harder time recruiting clergy and paying the bills.

    Monte Sahlin, a researcher with the Seventh-day Adventist Church,said three-quarters of his denomination is located in small towns orrural areas. The study shows "that we are not touching the urbanmainstream of American culture."