I am a Christian sociologist. (My conviction that that juxtaposition is not an oxymoron is something we can discuss later.) I am a member of Immanuel ELCA in Evanston where Frank Senn is my pastor. I joined the church some ten years ago to be nurtured in the naive faith I increasingly experienced in my life, but I was not raised in the Lutheran church and in no way can claim to speak for it. I speak as a sociologist of religion.
My task today is to share with you some of what we sociologists know that bears on the theme of this discussion. Sociological knowledge is in the form of generalizations based on surveys of individuals and of congregations as well as on ethnographic case studies of individual religious communities. But I will also use my observations from visits to many churches in Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S.
Church, Sect, and Denomination
By way of background, here is a sociological take on denominations in general. Denominationalism is an American invention. Europe knew, and still knows, the tension between “church” and “sect,” the church as a social institution ministering to the whole society, inclusive and privileged, and the sect as a religious social movement enlisting the commitment of a self-conscious minority, exclusive and insurgent. In the process through which the Thirteen Colonies became the United States, it was clear that there could be no established church for the new nation, what with the Congregationalists established in New England and, until the revolution, the Anglicans in Virginia. Thus, religious pluralism was written into the constitution. Disestablishment at the Federal level allowed the few state establishments to continue, and with them the idea that religion could be a settled institution privileged by the state, but federal disestablishment also encouraged the furiously competitive process by which sectarians — especially Baptists and Methodists — successfully enrolled the unchurched, especially on the frontier.
As is the way of sects, most of these dynamic movements evolved over time into settled institutions, the Methodists being the paradigmatic example. Without representing or ministering to the whole society in the manner of the European state church, accommodating themselves to the sector of society that they had enrolled, these formerly dynamic movements lost their sense of insurgency. Eventually, they combined the exclusiveness of the sect with the settled nature of the church, in a combination called “the denomination.” As an institution among other social institutions, the denomination, like the church, presupposes that its constituents, its members, have other commitments in civil society — to their families, their occupations, and their communities activities — that stand alongside their religious commitments. Their religion is acknowledged to be part of their lives, not all of their lives. Each denomination also recognizes that there are other denominations that have places in the society deemed equally legitimate by their own members.
In response to the accommodation to society of fellow believers, some sectarians, devoted to the founding vision, broke away to create new, purportedly purer, communions sharing the same name — “Methodist,” “Presbyterian,” and the like. Over time, many of these latter-day protestants themselves accommodated to denominational status. Thus the term “denomination” is ambiguous as between a common confession and a common organization. So here today, we “Lutherans” are at once members of one “denomination” and at least two.
In this way, the religious world, specifically American Christendom, came to be divided into social segments each of which was accommodated to its limited but accepted place in the society. This pattern was both brilliantly analyzed and scornfully disdained by the sociologist and theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1929), but it persisted for the better part of a century, from the Civil War to the New Frontier. By the twentieth century, its leaders, as well as its detractors, eventually came to feel that the Protestant denominational order it represented a new kind of establishment, with a guaranteed, socially privileged position in the society. By the middle of the century, many of these leaders increasingly asked themselves why they should be so divided. In the 1950s and ’60s they (I am thinking of such leaders as Eugene Carson Blake) invested a great deal of their personal and organizational energies in demolishing the symbolic boundaries that had once been their raison d’être but increasingly served to divide what they felt ought to be the united voice of American Protestantism.
The World After 1965
Things changed drastically in the 1960s. 1965 is the year that the growth that all of the oldline denominations — especially the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians — had experienced for decades, growth that funded the offices that planned their cooperative efforts and mergers, peaked and reversed. After 1965, only the sectarian groups like the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptists and the Mormons continued to grow. (See Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, as well as Hoge and Roozen 1979.)
By the 1970s, partly in response to the experience of decline, tensions within the denominations became endemic, and internal liberal and conservative pressure groups sprang up within each denomination.
Sociologists have contributed significantly to the analysis of these developments. One of the best books, still in print after almost 20 years, is Clark Roof and William McKinney’s American Mainline Religion (1987). Based mostly on survey data, Roof and McKinney found that loyalty to denominations had declined since WWII, and that there were more “switchers” than ever. Those who did switch seemed to be motivated less than previously by social mobility, the proverbial Baptist shoe salesman becoming the Presbyterian Vice-President for Marketing, and increasingly by attitudes on the social issues of the day, like the civil rights and feminist movements.
But just as people seemed increasingly interested in the churches’ social teachings and less in the churches’ former status-conferring role, Robert Wuthnow in The Restructuring of American Religion (1988) found that denominations were losing their coherence. Wuthnow coined the term, “the declining significance of denominationalism.” Denominations were less salient to people as part of their identities. An individual’s denomination was not a very good predictor of his or her attitudes and behaviors. Each of the denominations was internally besieged by caucuses of the right and left, and they were increasingly incapable of representing one side or the other in the religious partisan divide between conservatives and liberals that increasingly characterized white American Protestantism. What Martin Marty had earlier called the “two-party system” in American Protestantism increasingly cut across, not between, the denominations. So Wuthnow concluded that denominations aren’t where the religious action is. Instead, it was religious “special purpose” groups, both federations (e.g., the Christian Coalition) and collegia (e.g., Promise Keepers) that were enlisting commitments and pushing for social change in society. Wuthnow said that these entities, often called “parachurch” agencies, have to a large extent taken the place of denominations.
My own voice entered this discussion in 1988 with the book New Wine in Old Wineskins, which was based not on social survey data but on long-term ethnographic research in the small town of Mendocino, California. My book depicts the countercyclical case of the rapid growth of a single Presbyterian congregation in the 1970s that defied the demographic trend of its parent denomination, the PCUSA. I found that people flocked to Mendocino Presbyterian church not because it was Presbyterian but because its pastor spoke to their common experience of having chosen small-town life. I said that they exemplified a social process that the journalist Frances FitzGerald identified metaphorically as a key to the way our society was changing: She said that Americans were increasingly caught up in a series of “social centrifuges” that spun them around and deposited them into assortments based on newly significant identities and convictions: in Mendocino, they were what I called “elective parochials.” Elsewhere, they were suburbanites, yuppies, Bobos, gays and lesbians, Bible believers, home-schoolers, the young retired, cyclists, and what have you. There is a flourishing market research industry that identifies scores of such lifestyle enclaves into which Americans have sorted themselves.
The Mendocino book led me to focus on the congregation, not the special purpose group, as the basic dynamic unit within American religion. I found that congregations often go their own way, sometimes in order to make a particular public witness, sometimes but not always to the benefit of their membership and financial growth. I like to cite the example of two flourishing congregations that face each other across the town green in the middle of my home town, Evanston. Lake Street Church, formerly First Baptist, has distinct Buddhist leanings and is the most liberal congregation I know of within the American Baptist Churches. First Presbyterian is a self-described evangelical church within the dominantly liberal PCUSA. The pattern extends to Catholics. About 15 years ago, one of my students at UIC did research on the lay Catholics she called “floaters,” the increasing population of Catholics who, despite the stress on territorial parishes within canon law, choose which parish they will attend, on the basis of the priest’s style, the music program, the schedule of masses, and a host of other considerations. This is now recognized, even within the church, to be a widespread pattern.
In 1994, I introduced the concept of “de facto congregationalism” into the vocabulary of my field. All over the United States, local churches were carving out their own religious courses. Many congregations proudly declare themselves “non-denominational.” Other churches that maintained denominational affiliations for organizational reasons, decided to subdue those denominational connections in their names, as does “Lake Street Church” as well as many “Houses of Prayer” and “Christian Centers” in the U.S. In such places, the visitor has to work hard to find whether the church is affiliated with the Southern Baptists or the Assemblies of God. Church leaders obviously think that the denominational affiliation is unimportant at best, and counterproductive at worst as an appeal to the public.
Certainly the upshot of all these studies of the 1980s — Roof and McKinney’s, Wuthnow’s, mine, and scores of others — was that denominations were in trouble. But a set of other studies done mostly in the past decade, none more widely cited than Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (see also Wuthnow’s Loose Connections, Roof’s A Generation of Seekers and Spiritual Marketplace and the 1985 book by Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart; see also Nancy Eiesland’s A Particular Place) makes it clear that the malaise that sociologists of religion located in denominations were not at all confined to religion. Putnam showed that the decline in commitment and participation that is seen especially in the mainline Protestant denominations has affected nearly every kind of membership organization in the U.S.–bowling leagues, service clubs, professional societies, veterans’ organizations, Masonic lodges, the League of Women Voters–and these other organizational declines are typically worse than those involving religion (Putnam 2000). In all, the evidence amassed by Putnam and others, including Robert Wuthnow (1998), suggests that declines in church attendance and religious identification are part of a broader organizational process, not aspects of a specific process of secularization in the sphere of religion. Various analysts located the problem in different places and attributed it to different causes. Putnam singled out the advent of television, and said that watching TV was the single biggest cause of civic decline. Robert Bellah and his colleagues found the source of the problem in a long-standing but rapidly growing culture of “expressive individualism,” which itself has roots in the American evangelical tradition. In what might be regarded as a variation on the same themes, Clark Roof (1993, 1999) surveyed and interviewed members of the baby boom generation and found many for whom organized religious involvement lacked meaning. Searching for sources of meaning outside the churches, many Boomers called themselves a “spiritual but not religious.” Based on a community study in suburban Atlanta, sociologist Nancy Eiesland (2000) portrayed a new mode of religious involvement by which individuals continue to engage in meaningful and pragmatically valuable activities in religious congregations but do not find all of the activities they need within one congregation. They do not so much “shop around” between congregations as stop into one after another for what the churches offer, from youth programs to support groups. Unlike the case of most European countries, religion in the U.S. remains popular, and very few people would describe themselves as “religious but not spiritual.” But very clearly, religion in its old-fashioned denominational guise is not what millions of Americans say they want.
Much of the work of the 1980s and ’90s was based on surveys of individuals, who are, of course, the people who either do or don’t go to church. Individuals are the ones we typically begin with when we want to depict what individuals do and why. But individuals are not necessarily the best witnesses as to their own behavior and motivations. Sometimes we’d like to watch them to find out what they do, and correlate their patterns of behavior to figure out why. Nor do individuals typically determine the range of options from which they will make religiously relevant choices. The economic theory of religion, a subfield with which I have an ambivalent relationship, focuses not only on the “demand” side of religion, why people make the choices they do, but also on the “supply side,” how does it happen that the choices are available or unavailable. To answer that kind of question we need to talk to churches and their leaders.
Keeping Members — The Liturgy
Very recent work by Nancy Ammerman (Pillars of Faith from University of California Press in 2005) and Mark Chaves (Congregations in America from Harvard University Press in 2004) fills the bill nicely. They surveyed congregations, not individual members, typically interviewing a “key informant” (usually the pastor) in the many hundreds of congregations they sampled. These informants were, not surprisingly, well informed about their congregations such that they could give accurate answers. (Sociologists of religion are well aware that many lay people exaggerate the extent to which they go to church every week. We also know that people often do not know the official name of the denomination with which their congregations are affiliated; this is especially a problem among Baptists. It is also the fact that lay people do not use the terms “religiously conservative” and “religiously liberal” the way scholars do. Thus, relying on individuals’ responses to survey items may produce misleading interpretations of the sources of church strength.)
We could discuss details of Chaves’s and Ammerman’s respective methods later, but what is worth noting first is that Chaves’s study, which is based on the first truly statistically representative national sample of the more than 300,000 American congregations, and Ammerman’s, which is based on an intentional sample drawn from seven regions in the U.S., yield similar findings. With these findings, sociologists can offer some informed answers to the question that brings us together here today.
These studies provide variation in the news about denominational decline, which gives religious leaders potential leverage to influence trends. For example, some denominational traditions have a better record than others in holding on to their cradle members. Not surprisingly, the “sects” — Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses — tend to do well. Despite their many apostates, the Catholic church reproduces itself across generations better than do the churches in the Reformed tradition. And when Catholics leave the church, they tend to leave religion altogether, not coming to believe that their native church is just one among many. The mainline Protestant churches fare badly by contrast. Yet within the mainline, there is variation in the extent to which denominational loyalty is eroding. As a researcher in the field, one factor stands out to me in both Chaves’s and Ammerman’s studies: Insofar as mainline Protestant denominations — a category that includes the ELCA — hold together, it is especially their worship that provides the glue.
Let us begin with Chaves: He is particularly concerned with what characterizes congregations. What do they do? How do they differ? What are the sources of their similarities and differences? He finds that congregations are distinguished from one another primarily by their worship which, in turn, is heavily (though not completely) determined by their denomination. Denominations shape congregations, including their worship, by providing cultural resources, not through command and control (p. 209). And denominations are more distinctive from one another in their worship practices than in their demographic composition (p. 164). Applied to Lutherans, that means that we increasingly have in common our liturgy more than our social class, ethnicity, or whether we live in cities or rural areas.
Ammerman’s interest was finding out who is doing what she calls “religious work.” If indeed denominations are in decline, what agents are replacing them? Are parachurches indeed where the action is to be found? From whom do local churches get their Sunday school curricula and their worship materials? Where do their children go to summer camp? To whom do local churches send their benevolences? The patterns Ammerman found are complex. Downplaying denominational identities and connections and using parachurch resources seems to be a particular pattern among congregations in the historically white Conservative Protestant (evangelical, fundamentalist, pentecostal) traditions, including but not confined to congregations that call themselves “non-denominational.” Congregations in the historic Black Church tradition have high levels of denominational identity, even though they typically give to their denominational bodies only a fraction of what white mainline churches do. Within the Protestant mainline, rural churches with many lifelong members have a better record than urban ones in affirming their denominational identities and maintaining their cradle members. In Ammerman’s data, this is a particularly Methodist pattern. But with respect to churches like my own–urban congregations that are increasing filled with educated people who are not “cradle members”–strong denominational identity is the result of intentional effort on the part of the local church itself. Denominational identity cannot be taken for granted in such churches, and many are not strongly attached to their denominational identities. But for those who do want to affirm their denominational identities, that must be worked at from the ground up. Strong denominational identity is especially correlated with the use of denominational hymnals. It is worth quoting Ammerman’s conclusion at length (pp. 244-245):
For some denominations, particular ways of worshiping are central to who they are. Episcopalians and Lutherans, for instance, have an order of service that still bears marks of the Catholic tradition from which they came. The Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Worship set out beautifully crafted prayers and prescribed ways of conducting everything from evening vespers to services for holidays. Learning to use these books to make one’s way through a service is an acquired skill, although one easier for the highly educated members who disproportionately choose to join churches in these denominations. . . . Churches that set prayer books aside as too intimidating to the host of switchers who populate their pews do so at a cost. Not only do congregations with more eclectic worship practices lose a strong sense of identification with their denomination, but they may also lose more adherents to future intergenerational switching.”
Let me summarize some lessons from this literature:
- Strong central authority and bureaucratic offices do not necessarily conduce to denominational identity. Black Baptists tend to identify strongly with their denominational heritage, but their national offices are barely visible. Instead, these denominations inculcate loyalty through national conferences that bring ushers, Sunday school teachers and other lay volunteers together from across the country for family-like gatherings.
- Because of their material and ideal interests, leaders, especially clergy, are far more likely to be committed to their religious institutions — both denominations and congregation — than are the laity whom they serve. They are paid professionals, not paid enough to be sure, but still it is in their job description to be stewards. They must remember this when they think about the multiple commitment of their parishioners.
- Lack of deference to religious authority is not, in itself, evidence of the erosion of denominational glue. In some Chicago Catholic parishes, the archdiocese is spoken of, with a sigh, as “downtown.” The pastor and parish council know they have to deal with the chancery, but they don’t have to like it. Yet, nothing in this says that the pastor or his congregation is anything other than determinedly “Catholic.” The denominational identity is strong, but the feeling is that what the church stands for is not what comes down from the top. This attitude is not individualistic. It is congregational. It is also not necessarily heretical, insofar as Vatican II defined the church as “the body of Christ.”
- Churches have lost much of their power to confer status: People increasingly don’t know that they’re supposed to respect the learning of the Presbyterians or the culture of the Episcopalians. They don’t know what these labels mean. They may not even know that the Baptist church may be open to you if your social pretensions are more modest. Although Episcopalians and Presbyterians still have disproportionate representation among socio-political elites (for example, among members of Congress), the older religion/social class order has lost its hold. But this is not just a problem for churches. UIC’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter has a similar problem.
- There is increasing competition between churches and other organizations for the time of laity. Moreover, other institutions don’t defer to the churches’ claims on Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. (But this has been true in New York City for a long time.)
- Religious institutions can’t sail on cultural winds: culture doesn’t routinely blow people our way (Ammerman p. 267).
- Religion can’t be taken for granted, if it ever was. Mainline Protestant leaders would be well advised to take some clues from religious minorities, including American Jews, Hindus, and the Black Church. The mainline Protestant churches have been too reticent about their religious identities, as if claiming to embody religious truth was somehow offensive or intolerant. They must affirm their heritage if they are to survive to do good work in the world.
- The “Lutheran” label has a decreasing draw for outsiders. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have powerful, attractive, distinctive practices and teachings, including our liturgy, our music, our emphasis on education, our theology, and our family camps and youth conferences. A long time before my wife and I joined Immanuel Lutheran, the congregation had given up “Swedish” as a way of telling the world who were are. Even now “Lutheran” isn’t necessarily the way to communicate the value of these ideas and practices to those who didn’t grow up with them. We need to be assertive about what we have, but we must define it for those who do not know what “Lutheran” means. We cannot just use the label. The Lutheran Handbook: A Field Guide to Church Stuff, Everyday Stuff, and the Bible strikes me as a good start. In our home library, it is classified along with Leo Rosten’s classic book, The Joys of Yiddish.
- But it is emphatically not true that any of these trends is evidence of a crisis of belief, as if religious ideas lack “plausibility” in an age of reason and scientific understanding. There is no evidence for that claim and lots of evidence against it. We do not face a culture of unbelief; we face competition in the provision of meaning.
Ammerman, Nancy T. 2005. Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and their Partners. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Chaves, Mark. 2004. Congregations in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Eiesland, Nancy L. 2000. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecolgy in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Kelley, Dean M. 1977. Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row
Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1929. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. New York: Henry Holt.
Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Roof, Wade Clark, and William McKinney. 1987. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Roof, Wade Clark, Bruce Greer, Mary Johnson, and Andrea Leibson. 1993. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. San Francisco: Harper.
Warner, R. Stephen. 1988. New Wine in Old Wineskins: Evangelicals and Liberals in a Small-Town Church. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Warner, R. Stephen. 1994. “The Place of the Congregation in the American Religious Configuration.” Pp. 54-99 in James P. Wind and James W. Lewis, eds., New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations, volume II of American Congregations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wuthnow, Robert. 1988. The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Wuthnow, Robert. 1998. Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.