data from the Fact2000 study
Heritage, denominational loyalty and religious authority are three sources of cohesion for congregations. They help explain why congregations can remain vital.
Some congregations are anchored in their accumulated past of faith practices, culture and tradition. Others emphasize a denominational identity. Still others see their understanding of religious authority as a unifying force.
Across liberal and conservative, Protestant and Catholic, Christian and non-Christian lines, these three values, when located in favorable social conditions, help contribute to congregational stability, vitality, growth and fiscal health.
Denominations emerged in Colonial America as ethnic communities, and the affinity between racial/ethnic and religious identity in the American context replayed itself through most subsequent immigrations.
The convergence of ethnic and religious identities is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they can be mutually reinforcing.
Just over 60 percent of majority Latino congregations, for example, and half of majority Black congregations are intentional about using their religious community as a resource for preserving their racial/ethnic heritage.
On the other hand, a distinct racial/ethnic identity can present a barrier to potential new members.
Majority-white congregations with a distinct national identity are especially conscious about their need to increase their diversity.
Sociologists report that denominationalism is declining in significance for congregational identity.
But 62 percent of congregations say they reflect clear expressions of their denominational heritage.
One also finds that the expression of denominational heritage tends to be stronger in those congregations with a distinctive racial/ethnic/ national identity.
With a survey’s aura of scientific objectivity, we may forget that congregations are religious associations and their ultimate source of unity and purpose emanates from their relationship to the transcendent.
In this regard, the foundational importance of sacred scripture is nearly universal.
[Note: the Roman Catholic survey did not ask the religious authority set of questions.]
The Holy Spirit also is acknowledged as a foundational source of religious authority in six of ten congregations, and while creeds, doctrines, reason and personal experience are important for large numbers of congregations, they are acknowledged as foundational in relatively few.
Among the specific findings, which are consistent with these groups’ self-understandings:
- Baptists and Muslims are particularly oriented toward scripture.
- Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Mormons are particularly oriented toward creeds, doctrine and/or tradition.
- The Assemblies of God and Nazarene are oriented toward the Holy Spirit.
- Jewish groups and Unitarian Universalists orient themselves toward human reason.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship among the various sources of religious authority is revealed in congregations with a strong commitment to denominational heritage.
These congregations have unusually high commitment to the foundational authority of creeds, doctrines and tradition.
The strength of denominational ties varies across the spectrum of participating groups.
In broad strokes, congregations of Historically Black Denominations rate denominational connections the highest, while Liberal Protestant congregations report the lowest commitments to denominational ties. Although the structure and meaning of these commitments differs in the various faith communities, congregations that maintain connections with their denominational tradition and organization share at least one notable characteristic — financial stability.