"Congregation" is the word widely used in the United States to designate a voluntary local religious gathering that has a publicly recognized name and identity (such as "First Presbyterian Church") and a public space in which regular meetings are held (whether a rented storefront space or a magnificent temple or cathedral). While a growing number of "house churches" and other home-based religious gatherings are present in the United States, they are not usually included when the term "congregation" is used.
There are no reliable comprehensive lists of congregations, but the best estimates place the number of active groups in the United States at approximately three hundred thousand. Many New England congregations are among the oldest organizations of European Americans, dating back to the early seventeenth-century Puritans. Many other congregations are brand-new. Every year many congregations go out of existence and many new ones are begun.
The term "congregation" comes from Protestant traditions but is also used in Judaism; Roman Catholics are more likely to use the term "parish," reserving "congregation" for religious orders. Muslims gather in this country in mosques (masjids); many Hindus and Buddhists construct temples. But despite differing nomenclature, local religious gatherings in the United States are very likely to assume congregational form, a point made by R. Stephen Warner in his essay "The Place of the Congregation in the Contemporary American Religious Configuration."
The congregational form normally includes a regular membership and a regular schedule of meetings, as well as a recognized professional leader. In addition, congregations are composed of voluntary members. Even religious traditions that assign members geographically recognize that members in this country are likely to attend a congregation other than the one to which they are assigned.
The regular schedule of congregational meetings almost always includes a worship service, in most cases held at least weekly. Those services usually include prayers and some sort of sermon or inspirational talk. Most religious traditions also include sacred music or singing, often by the congregation itself. In some traditions, the songs, prayers, and other rituals are very formalized, sometimes being recited in the same form at each gathering. In other traditions, the members themselves select and create, more or less spontaneously, the various elements of their worship.
Congregations are also the primary teachers of most religious traditions in this country. Some establish full-fledged day schools to teach their children, while most simply create weekly religious classes (often called Sunday schools)—almost always for children, but often for adults as well.
The religious traditions with which congregations are associated are often called "denominations." About three-quarters of Christian congregations are officially linked to one of several hundred denominations in the United States. The remaining congregations are independent, having been founded by a particular local group. Those with denominational ties may identify with groups as large and diverse as the Baptists or with relatively small but historic bodies, such as Unitarians. Many denominations—such as Ukrainian Catholics or the African Methodist Episcopal Church—also embody an ethnic heritage.
Congregations, then, often represent gatherings of people who identify both with a religious tradition and with a particular language or ethnic group. Congregations may be, in fact, among the first organizations formed by new immigrant groups as they seek ways to survive and thrive in a new country. Because congregations, whether immigrant or native, are voluntary gatherings, their memberships are usually relatively homogeneous (although some take the building of a diverse membership as a primary goal). They may draw most of their members from a single neighborhood or town, but they may also be magnets, drawing people from a wide region who are especially interested in certain forms of worship or ministry. Both the religious values and rituals of the congregation and the particular people who gather there constitute a significant point of identification and social support for many in the United States.
In addition to their significance as places where a sense of community and identity is created, congregations are also important contributors to the delivery of social services. They provide emergency food, clothing, and shelter; programs of education and recreation; and spaces for community meetings and cultural events, as well as pools of volunteers and activists to fight discrimination or violence or behavior deemed immoral. Not all congregations take such public activity as their mission, and many do their work primarily through cooperative arrangements with coalitions of other congregations and/or community agencies. Nevertheless, congregations are among the country's most important organizational vehicles for volunteering and charitable contributions.
Located in every community, representing virtually every conceivable social grouping, and expressing a vast diversity of religious tradition and ritual, congregations are the primary organizational form for religion in the United States.
Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. Congregation and Community. 1997.
Warner, R. Stephen. "The Place of the Congregation in the Contemporary American Religious Configuration." In American Congregations: New Perspectivesin the Study of Congregations, edited by James Wind and James Lewis. 1994.
Warner, R. Stephen, and Judith G. Wittner, eds. Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the NewImmigration. 1998.
Wind, James P., and James W. Lewis, eds. AmericanCongregations, 2 vols. 1994.
Wuthnow, Robert. Producing the Sacred. 1994.
Nancy T. Ammerman
con·gre·ga·tion / ˌkänggrəˈgāshən/ • n. 1. a group of people assembled for religious worship. ∎ a group of people regularly attending a particular place of worship. 2. a gathering or collection of people, animals, or things. ∎ the action of gathering together in a crowd. 3. (often Congregation) a council or deliberative body. ∎ (in the Roman Catholic Church) a permanent committee of the College of Cardinals: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 4. a group of people obeying a common religious rule but under less solemn vows than members of the older religious orders: the sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady. ∎ a group of communities within a religious order sharing particular historical or regional links.
A. meeting, assembly XIV;
B. orig. in biblical language, in O.T. assembly of Israelites XIV; in N.T. body of Christians; body assembled for worship XVI. — (O)F. congrégation or L. congregātiō, -ōn-, f. congregāre, whence congregate collect together XV; see CON-, GREGARIOUS, -ATE 3, -ATION.
Hence congregational XVII.
an assembly of persons or things; a group of religious persons under a common rule; the Christian Church collectively; those attending a religious service. See also community, confession.
Examples: congregation of holy apostles, 1526; of gaseous atoms, 1883; of birds; of cardinals; of elves, 1809; of fish, 1865; of goods; of hypocrites, 1611; of holy maidens; of monasteries [e.g., Congregation of Cluny]; of oyster and scallop shells, 1717; of people, 1486; of plovers, 1430; of princes, 1539; of fine qualities, 1878; of saints, 1535; of soldiers, 1598; of vapour, 1602; of water, 1526; of winds; of worshippers.