Friday, December 10, 2004

The Churching of America

I just read an excellent and encouraging book, called The Churching of America: 1776-1990, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark.

Basically, it's an historical examination of the church in America, and the book's messages are many. Perhaps the most encouraging message is that the church has actually been growing steadily throughout American history. And perhaps the most useful observation, or warning, is that the more worldly a denonimation becomes, the more dead it becomes. While that's hardly a surprise, it's good to see solid scholarship backing it up.

By "worldly" (my word, not theirs; they use sociological terms) I don't think the authors mean that it's a problem for the church to use modern techniques for communicating with people, but simply that a church will begin to wither if it begins to get fuzzy about its doctrine and about holy living.

The authors suggest that this toning down of the church's stands and soft pedaling of its harder doctrines is initially encouraged by wealthy church members and - interestingly - by the pastoral leadership of the church. Why? Because they both want to fit in with society. Then, one compromise leads to another and pretty soon you have a dying church.

I think this raises an interesting question: How much should the church try to identify with the world in order to win it? I suspect a lot of dying churches initially said they were trying to be more "relevant" to the world when they actually wanted to fit in better. I think a good test is this: Are we compromising our beliefs to fit in? If not, I think we're okay. If we are compromising, I think we're on a downward slope.

A few other interesting points:

The authors say that the downward trend for churches begins in the seminaries. For example, they note that the Methodist Church, after truly explosive growth, began to urge seminarians to study the latest liberal German theology. These students were then assigned to churches and spread their views there. Because the Methodist Church is hierarchal, the individual churches could not reject these pastors, so unhappy parishioners split off from - or were kicked out of - the church, some forming the basis of the Holiness Movement.

The Southern Baptists, on the other hand, do not have a hierarchal organization. Their seminaries went liberal too (and amazingly, had problems virtually from the start!), but unhappy Baptists could not be kicked out of their denomination because the denomination does not have that authority. So conservatives could stay and fight, and they have been fighting, and lately, winning. Also, Baptist churches can select anybody they please as pastor and kick them out if they please. For that reason the Southern Baptists have had more success in maintaining their faith, though it has been a continuing battle for their seminaries.

I take it from this that democracy is good at preserving orthodoxy, and unless a church strongly believes that hierarchy is God-ordained, it should lean toward democracy.

Another interesting observation from the book is that the truly explosive growth of the Baptists and Methodists came when they had unpaid or underpaid amateur preachers. Professional clergy, the authors argue, want to be treated as professionals, get good pay and be respected in the community. This, they argue, kind of nudges the church in a worldly direction. I have often thought that church jobs should pay less than the prevailing wage, for just this reason, so churches don't attract the uncommitted.

But what is truly amazing and exciting about this book is that it explodes the myth that church membership has been declining through the years in America. To the contrary, the authors say it has been on an almost stairstep upward path since colonial days, from 17 percent of the population being church members in 1776 to 60 percent being members in 1980.

The reason people think it has been declining, or has gone in waves, they say, is because they only look at the path of particular denominations, which do indeed rise and fall. But, they note, there are constant renewals that create new churches and revitalize faith. That is the most encouraging message of this book.

This is a very rich book, with a lot of insights, and I'm just touching the highlights here and not even doing them justice. I'm not totally convinced of everything the authors claim, and I am not even sure the authors are Christians, but their book is fascinating and well worth pondering. I highly recommend it.


Anonymous said...

Who do you perceive as your audience? I suppose you believe in a hereafter and that the church point the way¿ Is a protestant church the only way.

I've envisioned a hereafter that does not require church membership or any religious affiliation if there is such a place.

I am now curious about the book, The Churching of America. Your article is a good read.

Brad said...

Thanks for the kind words.

I do indeed believe in the hereafter, but I believe Jesus is the only way, not the protestant church. Jesus died for our sins, not the protestant church (or any other church).

My audience? Probably mostly Christians of various stripes.

Best, Brad