Congregations are understood to be intentional bodies of people, who gather in a specific place consistently with the commitment of spiritual and/or religious worship and practices. Congregations can refer to a church (also megachuch or home church), parish, cathedral (Christian), synagogue (Jewish), masjid/ mosque (Muslim), temple (Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish), ward (Latter Day Saint), gurdwara (Sikh), assembly (Baha'i), or other group that represents a small, relatively autonomous membership unit with a religious organization. Congregations may be formally organized and institutionalized; or on the other hand, they may be loosely organized gatherings. While some number their participants in the thousands, most are quite small.
At its core, a congregation involves a body of people who adhere to a coherent belief system, set of values, and shared norms. It involves a regular, intentional assembly, and worship and the sacred. It has a particular place, and some form of ordained or lay leadership. In most religious traditions, people of faith regularly gather in congregations for worship, prayers, rituals, festivals, and rites of passage, spiritual nurture, transmitting doctrine and sacred texts, social support, fulfillment of obligation or disciplines, and charity or social action. For many people, congregations are also carriers of their culture's basic wisdom, traditions, and practices.
Although temples, mosques, churches, and other institutions in some cultures and traditions have historically been dedicated exclusively or primarily to religious rituals, prayer, and worship, these institutions tend to become multifaceted centers of community life when located in more religiously pluralistic, Westernized societies (and especially urban environments) or when the religious community faces oppression or persecution based on race, class, culture, or belief.
Congregations have been recognized to play an important role in society. They have been referred to as "mediating institutions," as institutions within culture that nurture a sense of character, morality, and civic engagement in young people. Congregations potentially impact their members through creating unique ideological, social, and spiritual environments. Religious institutions intentionally offer beliefs, moral codes, and values from which a young person can build a personal belief system. In addition, they provide an intergenerational body of believers to embody and exemplify these beliefs and values. In addition, congregations provide spiritual environments where young people can transcend their everyday concerns and experience connectedness with the divine and human others.
Religious congregations serve as what Garbarino refers to as spiritual anchors, or "institutions of the soul that connect children and teenagers to the deeper meanings of life and provide solid answers to the existential questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of life?"Youth need contexts in which to grapple with the spiritual issues of understanding their purpose in life, what they believe, and their place in the world. Congregations may provide a distinct context in which a young person can explore these issues that are critical to commitment to identity.
Sociologist Christian Smith suggests that religion or congregational involvement my influence young people in a variety of ways. He proposes three categories of influence. First, religion may influence young people through providing moral order. Religion provides moral directives, spiritual experiences, and role models that teach morals and may foster a commitment to them. Second, congregations provide the opportunity for learned competencies through religious practices, rituals, and service and leadership opportunities. Youth may gain community and leadership skills, coping skills, and cultural capital. Third, Smith suggests that through congregations, youth have access to unique social and organizational ties. Research suggests that religious youth have access to unique social resources that are associated with positive developmental outcomes. For instance, Benson et al. showed that religious youth report having more developmental assets, including a network of supportive relationships and positive values. According to Wagener et al., participation in religious life seems to result in greater exposure to developmental assets, which in turn results in the reduction of risk-taking behaviors.
Another study demonstrated a congregation's potential impact in young people's lives by examining the influence of religious social context on adolescent moral development. King and Furrow used social capital theory as a conceptual model for understanding how positive developmental outcomes are mediated through congregations and other social settings. Social capital refers to the actual and potential resources that a person has access to through his or her network of affiliations and relationships. Through a study of urban youth, they found that religious youth reported more social capital or higher levels of trusting, mutual and interactive relationships. In turn, the presence of social capital was related to reporting higher levels of moral outcomes. Social structures, such as congregations or faith-based organizations, can facilitate social interaction, provide a trusting relational atmosphere, and promote a collective set of shared values and beliefs. Congregations not only provide beliefs and moral standards, but the members embody and enact them in community.