Are Multiple Denominations a Source of Vitality in American Christianity?
By Ed Vitagliano
AFA Journal, October 2008 Edition
Ever wonder why there are so many denominations in America? Ever think it might actually be good for Christianity that there are?
That’s one of the intriguing implications of What Americans Really Believe, a fascinating study of Christianity in the U.S. It is the new book released by Rodney Stark, Baylor University professor of the social sciences.
The book relies on data mined over more than 40 years, but especially on that from three Baylor Surveys of Religion conducted in 2005, 2006 and 2007 by the Gallup Organization.
What Americans Really Believe presents a portrait of American Christianity that is encouraging, filled with data but understandable to the lay reader. But it is Stark’s approach to the subject of denominationalism that is perhaps its most unique feature.
Denominationalism’s premature death
In the 1950s the “experts” – not only sociologists but also many of the top theologians – believed that denominationalism was disappearing from the scene. Convinced that there were no longer significant differences between the various Protestant Christian streams in America, these experts said there were essentially only three major religious groups in America: Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.
“The fundamental assumption of this whole perspective was that the traditional doctrines of Christianity had lost their credibility, and therefore American religion was rapidly shifting ‘from a literalistic old-time faith’ to ‘demythologized modernism,'” Stark said. That is, from a theologically conservative view to a liberal one.
As sociological evidence began to emerge in the early 1960s, however, Stark said the old paradigm was shattered. Evidence revealed that Protestant denominations were not a monolithic blob of modernized unbelieving church attenders. In fact, many denominations were continuing to hold to “a literalistic old-time faith” – apparently in complete disregard for the opinion of experts.
“[R]ather than having become irrelevant,” Stark said, “denominationalism had become more profoundly important than ever before in history. … Denominational differences within Protestantism were huge. …”
Moreover, as additional data began surfacing 40 years later, the distinction between denominations manifested itself in another way. The denominations that were growing were the ones that “still sustained traditional faith,” Stark said.
These traditional, theologically conservative churches, in fact, grew rapidly between 1960 and 2000. (See chart.) For example, during that 40-year period the Church of God in Christ grew to 5.7 million members – an increase of 800%.
During that same time period, however, Stark said “the denominations where ‘demythologized modernism’ had made substantial headway all suffered catastrophic declines.”
For instance, even allowing for population growth in the U.S., the liberal United Church of Christ declined in membership by 60%, along with the Episcopalians (55%), Methodists (49%), Presbyterians (45%) and Lutherans (39%).
The wrong way to do Christianity
What has been happening in different denominations that accounts for the difference between which churches are growing and which appear to be dying?
The answer lies with a more fundamental question: Why are any denominations growing in America? When compared with Europe, for example, Christianity in America remains vibrant; but as noted incessantly by the media across the Atlantic, many churches in Europe are empty on Sunday mornings.
Stark said the cause of European Christianity’s current state of frailty is its historical reliance on state churches. In other words, wherever a particular denomination obtains a monopoly, it eventually begins to shrivel and die.
In an interview with Italian scholar Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements, Stark said this process revealed itself early in the history of the church. Following the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Stark said:
“It would have been fine had Constantine merely given Christianity the legal right to exist without persecution. But when he made Christianity the most favored religion and showered it with wealth and status, he undercut the commitment of the clergy. … Soon the Church was effectively a monopoly ‘firm’ served by lazy officials having no need to exert themselves to gain or retain members. It didn’t matter much if people came to church since the tithes were assured and there was nowhere else for people to go.”
Stark said that following the Protestant Reformation, Protestants made the same mistake by instituting state churches. Those churches “rapidly became state-supported, lazy monopolies, unwilling to energetically pursue public commitment,” he said. “Hence, Europe’s ‘empty churches.'”
Competition’s role in vibrant churches
State churches were not the reality during Christianity’s formative years. “In the earliest centuries, Christians had to compete against an immense array of pagan faiths as well as Judaism,” Stark told Introvigne, “and these challenges required them to be energetic and effective.”
This is the key to the vigorous nature of American Christianity, Stark said, “where scores of independent churches are entirely dependent on voluntary support, the lazy churches simply go out of business, their membership attracted away by energetic bodies.”
This would mean that what we are witnessing in Europe is not the demise of Christianity so much as the failure of state churches. Might something extraordinary be ready to replace the lazy and moribund state churches in Europe?
Stark said he believed there is a nascent religious renewal brewing in Europe. “The claim that Europe is irreligious is based on low levels of church attendance,” he told CESNUR. “But, as I have long argued, lack of attendance reflects ineffective churches rather than lack of faith, since religious belief remains high all across the [European] continent.”
In America, of course, not only is there no state church, there are numerous denominations and sects – and they are competing with each other for members.
Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, said, “The American religious economy is like a marketplace – very dynamic, very competitive. Everyone is losing, everyone is gaining. There are net winners and losers, but no one can stand still. Those groups that are losing significant numbers have to recoup them to stay vibrant.”
The Baylor Surveys on Religion found that members of conservative denominations are growing, while liberal denominations are shrinking, for very simple reasons. Statistically speaking, members of conservative churches bring their friends to church more often, witness more often to strangers, volunteer at church more often, give more to the church and give more often … basically just seem to be working harder and more enthusiastically at making their church life a successful endeavor.
“[T]he singular thing about American religion is an unregulated religious economy free from the stifling effects of a lazy, state-supported church – American churches must recruit or perish,” Stark insisted. “The result is that literally tens of millions of Americans are on the lookout to recruit new people for their congregations and work hard to keep them coming once they have started to attend.”
The challenge ahead
Not all the statistics about Christianity in the U.S. are sunny, however. In a number of areas the data appear to be revealing a weakening of traditional Christianity’s hold on American life.
As the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) finished its annual convention this past summer, for example, delegates heard dire warnings about the state of their denomination – the largest Protestant church in America.
According to an article in WorldNetDaily, outgoing SBC President Frank Page said that only half the number of Southern Baptist churches in existence today will still exist in 20 years. And Ed Stetzer, a spokesman for the denomination’s North American Mission Board, said 55% of SBC churches baptized no young people in 2005.
“We must face the fact that much of the American church is declining for a very Biblical reason: We have failed to be and makes disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ,” complained Rick Hughes of the North Carolina State Convention.
But even if the statistics are as ominous as many are claiming – and What Americans Really Believe takes a more positive stance – the warnings issued by Southern Baptists this summer are precisely what Stark says is the strength of American Christianity.
Many U.S. denominations recognize they are in competition, not only with each other, but with an increasingly secular culture. They sense when membership is waning and take steps to correct the problem.
As long as churches are taking the right steps – as with Hughes demanding a return to making disciples of Jesus Christ – Christianity should remain a force in American life for years to come.
This article was used by permission of the American Family Association. For more articles by the AFA Journal visit: http://www.afajournal.org