May 2010

Congregations from the Inside Out - John W. Stewart

Among sociologists, there is a well-worn mantra: “If you want to know what the folks in Paducah are really up to, ask ‘em.” With insatiable curiosity, American sociologists have long probed what folks in Protestant churches “are really up to.”  As early as the mid-1830’s the French chronicler of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, was surprised by American church habits. He used (coined?) the term “voluntary associations” to describe the democratically-laced practices of American congregations that differed radically from European parishes.

During the last third of the 20th Century, amid anxieties heightened by the Civil Rights Movements, the Vietnam War, and stresses of the “Great Society,” sociologists sensed seismic shifts among American Protestants. Nervous leaders at the National Council of Churches commissioned Dean M. Kelly, a sociologist, to interpret “Why Are Conservative Churches Growing?” In contrast to evangelical churches, he attributed the numerical demise of mainline Protestant congregations to “low commitments” and convoluted organizational structures. At the same time, James Hopewell described congregations, especially in the urban South, as collages of “stories,” that is, a patchwork of lore-laden narratives rarely inspired by a centering mission.

On the eve of the 21st Century, the pace of sociological studies of mainline congregations quickened. Numerous analysts pointed to constitutive changes stirring up American Protestantism. One example is Nancy Ammerman’s pivotal study of nearly 30 Protestant congregations in Indianapolis, entitled Congregations and Community. This leading sociologist of congregations found many of that city’s failing congregations, content with the “comfort zones” of their past, were unable to “imagine how their future could be different” when their neighborhoods changed. More surprising, she found many depressed congregations had “lost touch with their charter story,” that is, a biblically-generated vision for ministry and witness.

Currently, sociologists are heaping up mountains of data about congregations. Squadrons of well-financed sociologists continue to probe “what the folks in Protestant communities are really doing.” To help church leaders grasp the trajectories in American Protestantism and point the way to a more hopeful future, several active sociologists are worth consulting.

  • Wade Clark Roof
    In his classic analysis The Spiritual Market Place (1999) Roof makes a compelling case as to why and how most mainline Protestants participate in a congregation “on their own terms.” The implications of his findings are far reaching. In a congregation of 100 members there are, potentially, 100 purposes for the church’s mission!
  • Christian Smith
    After supervising the largest survey ever taken of American adolescents (ages 14- 18), Smith in his Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), found that most Protestant-churched youths were out of touch with established Christian convictions. Rather, they are embedded in what he called “a moralistic, therapeutic deism,” a theological orientation acquired from the adults in their lives. God, the divine butler, is useful at football games, exam times, and broken romances.
  • Mark Chaves
    In his groundbreaking study, Congregations in America (2004), Chaves surveyed the practices of more than 1,200 congregations. He was surprised to discover: (1) the large investments in artistic enterprises; (2) the non-integrated aggregates of smaller niche groups; and (3) the influence of members who wield enough political and financial clout to impose their desired programs on the congregation without referring or deferring to the purpose and mission of the congregation. (See Chapter 8)
  • Robert Wuthnow
    This respected and prolific Princeton University professor often tempers the more shrill conclusions of his fellow sociologists. His examination of America’s small group phenomenon (see Sharing the Journey, 1994 ) counterbalanced assumptions of American individualism. His exploration into American spirituality (see After Heaven, 1998) charted the shifting of location of Americans’ “quest for the Transcendent.” He found credence for the slogan, “spiritual but not religious.” And his analysis of how Protestants contribute to the “social capital” (see The Quiet Hand of God, 2002) challenged other sociologists claims of Protestants’ institutional self-absorption.

Many websites now summarize scholars’ research about congregational trends, practices and commitments. I follow four of them regularly.

  • Hartford Institute for Religious Research
    Located at Hartford Theological Seminary, a team of scholars track trends in American congregations, including megachurches. Of particular import is their Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who’s Going Where and Why (2002) which summarizes results of the ongoing and extensive U. S. Congregational Life Survey.
  • Alban Institute
    One of America’s foremost “think tanks,” their many accessible publications address multiple issues, dilemmas and agendas for congregations. Their publication Congregations ought to be in every church library.
  • Institute for Studies of Religion
    Among the many poll takers of American religion, Baylor University’s ISR is a premier source for tracking America’s religious trends, commitments, and institutional alignments.
  • Leadership
    Established by Professor Scott Cormode at Fuller Theological Seminary, this comprehensive website reproduces many scholarly articles and insights about leadership issues and trends in American congregations.

Sociologists seek to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. They do not provide biblical and theological perspectives with which to base a congregation’s mission and hope. But they are very useful for explaining the socio-cultural contexts of congregational life and mission and how those contexts influence congregations. As another mantra has it, every Christian community is both “in the world but not of it.”

John W. Stewart, Ph.D. was Ashenfelter Associate Professor of Ministry and Evangelism Princeton Theological Seminary and he now consults with congregations and denominational leaders.

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