Creating Congregations That Work

Sorting through the marketplace of religious and spiritual options.


Making sense of America's ever evolving religion scene is no easy task. Are those churches, synagogues, and mosques most successful that adapt to the needs and tastes of our time? Or are orthodoxy and traditionalism the way to win and hold young spiritual seekers? Is free-form spirituality slowly pushing aside organized religion? Are agnosticism and, yes, even atheism making forceful gains in this most God-fearing of modern industrial nations?

You can listen to well-argued affirmative answers to all of those questions and at the end be even more confused about who has it right. The simple truth is that America is a bewildering marketplace of religious and spiritual options, complicated, of course, by those who opt for life without any consoling transcendent belief.

Without bringing full order out of this chaos, two new books shed very helpful light on key aspects of our current murk. Looking at one of the major growth industries in organized religion, the authors of Beyond Megachurch Myths, Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and Dave Travis, executive vice president of the Leadership Network, help to dispel many of the misconceptions that have already arisen around the relatively recent phenomenon of the over-2,000-member congregation.

The biggest and perhaps most encompassing myth is that anything this big can't be good. Why? Well, critics say, it leads to impersonality, lack of real community. The size is achieved by diluting orthodox teaching and Scripture with a lot of feel-good therapeutic cheerleading, which only encourages the self-centeredness of me generation folks. And massive congregations depend almost entirely on the presence of charismatic ministers, without whom the churches would simply collapse. Oh, and if that isn't bad enough, all those Wal-Mart-size churches also reinforce social divisions along lines of race, class, and politics.

The trouble with this neatly dismissive picture, Thumma and Travis's research shows, is that it's far from universally true. There's a lot more diversity out there in those over-2,000-member congregations, diversity not only of the social kind but also of the theological and programmatic character. While some 34 percent of megachurches are nondenominational, for example, nearly two thirds are denominational—including the 16 percent that are Southern Baptist and have a distinctively clear teaching and theology. Nor should it be assumed that most of those nonaffiliated churches water down core Christian teaching. Just because some pastors favor seeker-friendly services with upbeat contemporary music doesn't mean they don't hew to a strict theological line in their sermons.

And, yes, while something close to a cult of personality does develop around some megachurch pastors, Thumma and Travis found that most such church leaders, as much out of modesty as necessity, do their best to spread and delegate their authority among assistant pastors and committee heads. Those pastors are very concerned that the churches they helped build live beyond them.

As for social diversity itself, close research shows that 31 percent of megachurches claim a "20 percent or more minority presence in their congregations." Contrast that with multiracial Christian churches (those having no more than 80 percent of one racial group) in general: Only 15 percent of Catholic churches qualify as such, and just 5 percent of Protestant churches do.

If this data-rich book does nothing else, it should expose the glibness of all generalizations about the megachurch phenomenon. But the success of the institution it explores raises an even bigger question: Are religious congregations in general getting better at wooing and holding congregants?

The answer to that question will largely be answered when we get a better grip on the subject that Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow addresses in his new book, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion.

The most immediately striking thing to come out of Wuthnow's research is the lack of real concern most religious congregations show for those young adults who were, generally speaking, somewhere between ages 21 and 45 in the years between 1998 and 2002. Still focused on the baby boomer cohort, most American congregations, in Wuthnow's view, are missing the boat. Though less clearly defined than the boomers (they could be said to include generations X and Y as well as the so-called Millennials), this broad demographic cluster is the one in whose hands Wuthnow believes the "future of American religion" lies.

So what should religious leaders do? First, Wuthnow says, they should know who these young adults are and what broader forces shape their lives. They should also recognize that this cohort is, in Wuthnow's words, "already less actively involved in congregations than older adults are" and "currently less involved than younger adults were a generation ago."

To explain why this is so, Wuthnow sketches some of the key trends that are shaping these young adults' lives. One is delayed marriage, which is dramatically illustrated by the fact that married couples in their 20s were a majority among their peers in the 1970s but a minority by 2000. This trend, along with that of younger adults' having fewer children—and having them later—means that one of the key inducements to joining a religious congregation is at least being delayed in the lives of many young adults. And rather than responding helpfully to these trends, Wuthnow says, congregations still do too little to cater to the spiritual needs of single, childless adults.

Another big factor facing 20- and 30-somethings is job uncertainty, a condition felt more acutely by them than by their boomer elders. High turnover in jobs and heavy consumer debt reinforce the trends toward later marriage and delayed childbearing.

In addition to helping young adults cope with such sources of instability and loneliness, congregations need to recognize that most of this cohort appears to have fewer binding social relationships than its elders and parents did. In fact, Wuthnow says, 20- and 30-somethings may actually be forming less visible ties to friends and organizations through the electronic media, but churches and other congregations need to deal with civic participation that is largely on the decline in the most obvious and outward ways. These congregations should become more active players in the new technologies associated with the information explosion that is remaking the world of these younger adults.

Wuthnow is aware that some congregations—home-based minichurches as well as megachurches—are making an explicit effort to address the conditions of the young-adult cohort. Some are seeing that this is a generation of what Wuthnow calls tinkerers: people who are putting together their lives from the scores of lifestyle options that lie before them, including spiritual options. But for the most part, Wuthnow fears, churches now fail to provide the kind of social and spiritual support that young adults could profit from during what are often the loneliest stretches of their lives.