There’s new life in the old pews, says the author of an upcoming book whose study of congregations in nine American cities found effective ministry amid a religious landscape marked by dying old churches and declining identification with mainline denominations.
Many congregations fail to adapt to change and go out of existence, Nancy Tatom Ammerman told clergy gathered today at Wake Forest University for the seminar, “If Jesus TarriesÖProfiling American Religion Toward a New Millennium.”
“To say that half of today’s churches may not be in existence a generation from now sounds depressing, but new life is springing up,” Ammerman said at the seminar, sponsored by the university’s Ministerial Alumni Association. “Those congregations may die or move out or be absent from the environment, but new species come in and live in the old houses,” said Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. “The real action is the founding of new congregations.”
In 1992, Ammerman surveyed members of 400 different congregations, examining how they responded to plant closings, immigration, the growth of visible gay and lesbian enclaves and other changes. The survey sites were Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston.
Funded by the Lily Endowment, Ammerman’s study forms the basis of her book “Congregation and Community,” due out in February from Rutgers University Press. She found that 23 percent of the congregations surveyed had been formed within the last 12 years, with evangelical congregations predominating among the new churches.
Only about one-fifth of the congregations surveyed successfully adapted to change and were thriving, Ammerman said. One surprising barometer of congregational health was conflict. About 80 percent of the adapting churches had endured recent splits and other conflict over direction; 80 percent of the congregations that could not adapt avoided all conflict.
Ammerman said that healthy conflict did not include firing ministers, which was among the many hallmarks of dying congregations. She said that the study found congregations play an integral role in society by channeling volunteer energy, teaching members public speaking and organizing skills, providing moral education for children and adults, giving dispossessed groups a sense of belonging, and delivering social services to the poor.
Other groups perform some or all of these roles, Ammerman said, but only congregations fill them in the context of God’s presence and strive to mirror the values of a world far different than our own. “We’ve got to say the `God word a whole lot more than we have been saying it,” she said.
While congregations are vital links in the social service network ñ distributing food in South Central Los Angeles after the riots ñ Ammerman said that they lack the financial resources to assume an even larger share of government’s burden.
In the conference’s segment on denominations, Bill J. Leonard, dean of Wake Forest’s new divinity school, said that fewer Americans consider themselves Baptists, Methodists or members of other denominations, but identify instead with the characteristics and programs of local congregations. Leonard said that erosion of religious traditions means churches must devote more attention to education.
“Contemporary churches can no longer take it for granted that their members know why the church baptizes, worships, sings, preaches and teaches as it does,” Leonard said.
Charles A. Kimball, the chair of Wake Forest’s religion department, said that clergy must also make a greater effort to help members understand the growth of Islam and other world religions, and how they can shed prejudices to find common ground in solving crime, drug abuse and other community problems. While many Americans equate Islam with terrorism, Kimball said that truck bombings and other political violence “is as offensive to the vast majority of Muslims as David Koresh is to the vast majority of Christians.”
If current trends continue, Kimball said that Muslims will outnumber Methodists by the middle of the next century and raise new questions about holidays and other church-and-state issues.
Sign up for weekly news highlights.Subscribe