Newswise — BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The percentage of politically active churches is decreasing, according to a first-of-its-kind national study by Indiana University that also reveals an increase in the percentage of churches engaged in service activity.

This research draws on three waves of data from the National Congregations Study to provide the first national scale study to identify trends among churches addressing social needs.

Between 1998 and 2012, the percentage of churches participating in at least one type of service-related activity increased from 71 percent to 78 percent, while the percentage of churches participating in at least one type of political activity decreased from 43 percent to 35 percent.

“The trends suggest a significant change is underway in how churches seek to address social needs,” said researcher Brad Fulton of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

This study also examines trends among subpopulations of churches grouped by their religious tradition, ethnoracial composition and ideological orientation. Among most types of churches, participation in service-related activities is substantial and increasing, while political participation is less substantial and decreasing.

Fulton found that the most substantial decrease in political participation has occurred among white evangelical churches. For example, between 1998 and 2012, the percentage of evangelical churches that distributed voter guides decreased from 19 percent to 11 percent, and the percentage promoting opportunities to participate politically decreased from 21 percent to 7 percent.

Meanwhile, the political participation rate among liberal churches has been substantial and increasing. In 2012, 80 percent of liberal churches participated in at least one type of political activity, making them three times more likely than conservative churches to be politically engaged.

“This trend of fewer conservative churches and more liberal churches participating in political activities runs counter to popular perceptions,” Fulton said. “These perceptions are fueled by media outlets and political pundits, whose coverage of religion and politics tends to focus almost exclusively on the religious right and rarely even mentions religious progressives.”

Also deviating from the general downward trend in political participation among most types of churches are Catholic and predominantly Hispanic churches, whose participation rates have been increasing. For example, between 1998 and 2012, the percentage of Catholic churches that lobbied an elected official increased from 12 percent to 24 percent, and the percentage of predominantly Hispanic churches that participated in a demonstration or march increased from 1 percent to 17 percent. Even though participation rates are increasing among these types of churches, they represent a small percentage of all churches.

Overall, the substantial and increasing participation rates in service-related activities among most types of churches supports the view that service provision is an institutionalized and nearly universal practice of churches. In contrast, the trends in church-based political participation suggest that political engagement is becoming a niche practice among a few types of churches.

“The general decline in political participation among churches has implications for the role churches can play in addressing social needs,” Fulton said. “Relieving immediate needs through service provision without also pursuing long-term solutions through political participation can limit churches’ ability to comprehensively address social needs. When churches combine acts of service with political engagement, they can provide short-term relief while at the same time advocating to improve social conditions.”

Fulton’s research was published this month in the journal Religions in the article “Trends in Addressing Social Needs: A Longitudinal Study of Congregation-Based Service Provision and Political Participation.”

Journal Link: Religions, 7 May 2016