Experts to Explore Trends Shaping Religion

Church mirrors state when it comes to denominations, says Bill J. Leonard, dean of the new Wake Forest Divinity School. Just as fewer Americans consider themselves “Republican” or “Democrat,” Leonard said that religious Americans increasingly identify themselves not as “Baptists,” “Methodists” or members of other denominations but as members of local congregations with particular characteristics.

The weakening of denominational ties is among several topics Leonard and two other nationally known religious experts will review for clergy in the conference, “If Jesus TarriesÖProfiling American Religion Toward a New Millennium,” from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Oct. 29 in Room 401 of Wake Forest Universityís Benson University Center.

Leonard, Charles A. Kimball, chair of Wake Forestís Department of Religion, and Nancy Tatom Ammerman, professor of religion at Hartford Seminary, will discuss how the church can adapt to a future shaped by weakening denominational ties, the growth of Islam and other world religions in the United States, and demographic, business and cultural shifts challenging congregations. “The decline of denominational identity means that local congregations must be more intentional about passing on a specific identity to a new generation of constituents,” Leonard said. “But while they are in major transition, denominations arenít dead either.

“The need for identity among the growth of other world religions is one reason why the denomination or something like it will not vanish from the religious scene anytime soon. Already, certain independent megachurches are developing networks to cooperate.”

While denominations are losing their hold over individual church members, world religions are playing a larger role in Americaís religious life, said Kimball, who will lead the conferenceís segment on world religions. In one example of their growing influence, Kimball said that Muslims will outnumber Methodists in the U.S. by the middle of the next century if current trends continue.

“If Muslim employees want to pray at Friday noon,” he said, “how do we as a society accommodate that and their beliefs about gender issues, religious holidays?”

The conferenceís guest speaker will be Ammerman, professor of religion at Hartford Seminary and a national expert on changes in congregations. She will present findings from her new book, “Congregation and Community,” due out in February from Rutgers University Press. “We looked at over 400 congregations in nine places around the country where rapid social change altered the demographics and culture and economics of the communityóeverything from plant closing to immigration and the growth of visible gay and lesbian enclaves,” Ammerman said. Challenging the thesis of the popular book, “Bowling Alone,” Ammerman said that not all civic institutions are in decline and unable to meet the challenges of todayís society.

“While many transitional institutions are declining, there is tremendous innovation going on that helps fill the void,” she said. The conference is sponsored by Wake Forestís Ministerial Alumni Council. Clergy interested in attending should call (910) 759-5225 by Friday, Oct. 25. Registration is $40 and includes lunch.

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