Three Sources of American Religious Renewal


FACTs for churches
data from the Fact2000 study

Three Sources of American Religious Renewal
By David A. Roozen

Alexis de Tocqueville is remembered for his affirming analysis of American democracy. Less familiar is his reflection that religion in the United States is much more vital than in his native France or in Europe. The persistence of what he observed in the mid 19th century is borne out in a new study of American congregational life. 

Analysts of industrial nations often are perplexed by the continuing high level of religious involvement in the Unites States. According to historians this persistent vitality of congregational life is the result of overlapping waves of renewal rather than a steady growth from pioneer strengths. The new survey, known as Faith Communities Today, reveals that three causes of this renewal are still evident across America—and that one of these provides especially good news for the old-line Protestant churches. 

Perhaps the most characteristically American source of this renewing energy is immigration. The United States is, after all, largely a nation of immigrants. All old-line Protestant denominations (as well as most streams of U.S. Catholicism and Judaism) are immigrant in origin. The waves of immigration that have washed over our country throughout its 300+ year history continue to bring new immigrant and ethnic religious groups to our shores. 

A second agent of renewal has been the development of indigenous American religious movements—most with Protestant roots. Several have developed into sizable denominations, the largest and best known being what we now call the United Methodist Church. These two sources of renewal are demonstrated dramatically in the FACT research (see the 1990-2000 columns of Figure 1). 

Figure 1Figure 1 shows the percentage of congregations organized by denominational families during various periods of time. The green line shows the continual surge of Evangelical Protestantism. Hidden within the green aggregate is data revealing that between 1980 and 2000 the major source of Evangelical Protestant growth was the Assemblies of God, a denomination that developed here in America in the early years of the 20th century. Also hidden in the green aggregate is the fact that during the 1990s the fastest growing segment of the AOG was its Latino congregations. 

Even more dramatic is the percentage growth from 1990 to 2000 of the indigenous Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the largely immigrant Islamic community, shown in the purple line. (Future articles in this series will look at the changing face of American congregations.) 

When old-line Protestant churches began experiencing membership losses in the mid-1960s, the primary cause of the decline was their failure to adapt to social and demographic changes. There was, however, no clear agreement on a path or paths to renewal. Within the last decade there were impressionistic hints that contemporary and expressive styles of worship were beginning to creep from west to east and from neo-Pentecostal into old-line Protestant congregations. What a difference those few years make! The FACT data show that the expressive nature of contemporary and blended forms of worship have now made it to the east coast and even into some old-line churches. 

Figure 2More importantly (see Figure 2) the data show that this style of worship—measured in the survey by the use of electronic instruments in worship—is positively related to membership growth across all Protestant families, including old-line denominations. Similarly, positive correlations are found between membership growth and a wide range of different measures of vitality. (We will deal with these evidences of vitality in future articles in this series as well as issues related to membership growth.) 

The FACT data show that contemporary worship is more strongly associated with membership growth than what Dean Kelly called “strictness,” the outward focus of mission-minded congregations, or even shifts in population. The positive relationship between contemporary forms of worship and membership growth is as strong for older congregations that changed their worship patterns as for new congregations that used contemporary forms from the beginning. Further, participants in congregations using contemporary styles of worship are, on average, notably younger. The FACT data suggest that after nearly 50 years of struggling to find broadly applicable ways to adapt, with theological integrity, to social/demographic changes, many old-line Protestant churches have found a path to renewal and membership growth. (Future articles in this series will consider the subjects of worship and congregational change.) 

Three quick, but important, caveats. First, contemporary worship is not a panacea. Even among Protestants there are many vital and growing congregations that worship in traditional ways. In our increasingly niche-oriented religious marketplace, it stands to reason that variety should flourish. Creative adaptation, that matches heritage and identity with context, appears more important than any unreflective application of a mythical “magic bullet.” 

Second, “contemporary” has different meanings in different faith traditions and we have yet to analyze fully our new data on how “contemporary” adaptations relate to vitality among Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Figure 3Third and finally, the FACT data show that congregations that seek to change their style of worship will have to pay the price of conflict (see Figure 3). The organizational consultants are right: change is costly, conflict is one of the significant costs, and the ability to deal with controversy is one of the essential capabilities of adaptive congregations. (Conflict, also, will be dealt with in future articles in this series.)

Professor Roozen is the director of Hartford Institute for Religion Research and co-director of the Faith Communities Today project.

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