I remember reading sociologist Peter Berger’s 1969 book A Rumor of Angels at a time when many academics in a range of disciplines were preaching the soon demise of religion. The academic heirs of social theorists from Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud to Max Weber believed that as societies became more modern, religion would lose its capacity to inform, console, or direct. History has not come ’round—at least not yet. Instead, according to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, religion in the United States has become more fluid and diverse, a consumer product with an array of choices set out in denomination, nondenomination, and postdenomination churches and other transdenomination bodies.* What is true for Christians, and particularly for Protestants, is also a reality for other religious groups.
In my work with religious movements and students, I often meet people whose life paths demonstrate remarkable diversity, like one young man who is now on his way to seminary. Having been born a Roman Catholic and having journeyed by way of neopaganism to Pentecostalism, he now considers himself a confirmed Roman Catholic and a confirmed United Methodist. Another I know was born Jewish, had traveled by way of Buddhism to messianic Judaism and is now considering which Presbyterian body, or none, with which to affiliate. This movement and ferment among people looking for religious identity comes after frequent and well-publicized defections of others from evangelicalism to Eastern and Antiochene Orthodoxy or to Roman Catholicism or to Judaism. As with other contemporary religious expressions, Christianity has become a movement of great fluidity and diversity in the twenty-first century. Religious “border crossing” is not unusual but in fact represents much of postdenominational Protestantism and the wider religious currents of which it is a part.
All around us we see the interracial and intergenerational character of a growing postdenominationalism—churches that are young, vibrant, and committed to connecting faith and justice as fresh models of religious authenticity, but not particularly associated with denominational or nondenominational predecessors. Aspects of this movement reach back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Other roots reach to college campus fellowships over the past century, as well as to the dynamics of intercultural relations, economic and technological change in social life in the United States, and to globalization. While postdenominationalism finds a certain locus within Protestant groupings of churches, it is a social reality that can be discerned across all branches of Christianity, in Judaism, and among other faiths. It can take the form of small intentional communities or megachurches. Postdenominationalism may participate in forms of transdenominationalism.
Denominationalism developed together with democratization and the principle of free association in religious life, ideas that took root in the American setting. This church life has developed along with individualism in the modern world, shaped also by increasing technological innovation and change. Evidence indicates that U.S. Protestants are less likely to belong to mainline denominations and more likely to belong to conservative ones than in the past. That they are often a part of postdenominational expressions of community life appears to be a growing social phenomenon worth tracking. That similar denominational stress or organizational tension can be found in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy—as well as in Judaism and perhaps elsewhere—is not surprising, given the shared social setting of religion in North America. While the trusted brands of American Protestant religious life grew through the 1940s and 1950s, their loss of members from around 1965 to the present can be found in many movements—megachurch, emergent church, and, in general, postdenominationalism. But postdenominationalism also represents a discernable outgrowth from the trajectories that formed denominationalism in the United States.
To say that postdenominationalism is anti-institutional is too large a claim. Rather, the importance of institutions is seen in a new light, that of the value they hold in a structure of religious networking for social good and around other specific ends. As with the first expressions of federations and councils of churches at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, postdenominationalism is a way of building social capital for democratic societies, even in the context of religious difference. Hence the interest in emerging transdenominationalism, a movement across denominational and even religious borders, is growing. The strength of the American religious setting has been the way in which it has allowed denominationalism to morph into an Americanizing aspect of social legitimacy for common civic life. Beyond these observations, something more needs to be said that transcends these influential and positive trajectories in American religious life.
First, American culture has increasingly become one united around work, not celebration. One of the chief ends of religion is celebrating life’s transitions. An effect of marginalizing religious life in secular America is marginalizing community celebration. People’s quest for religious authenticity in America today is in part a quest for meaningful community celebration—and for genuine community in contrast to the distrust in or the hollowing out they encounter in many other institutions. Religious institutions will continue to play a role in social experience in the United States; understanding them is important to an understanding of American culture.
Second, religious meaning is easily co-opted by the state when the state becomes the only socially unifying force in the life of the nation. The implications of this for the separation of church and state and for a misplaced civil religion are significant, particularly given the emergence of the National Security State following 1947 and the rise of American militarism. By taking themselves seriously, and by taking interfaith dialogue seriously, religious institutions can help promote the well-being of all other institutions in society through their freedom of expression and the vibrancy of the prophetic office. Hence, we are drawn to the importance of postdenomination and transdenomination religious experience and cooperation.
Third, the question of who vets religious truth is one of increasing interest in a postdenominational and transdenominational religious world: one author has said that the Christian faith is becoming more like Wikipedia and less like Encyclopedia Britannica— that is, rather than vetting knowledge through a process of learned men and women or by adherence to creeds and confessions, Christianity
(or other religious traditions) is “what others are saying.” There is something of an inherited truth here, something that takes us back to Peter Berger and to the thesis in his 1967 book with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, that meaning is embedded in society through patterns of social interaction and does not arise from an infallible truth. The erosion of trust in major institutions, be they banks and corporations, the government, the military, universities and the press—or religion—bears serious reflection as different religious groups in the twenty-first century seek legitimacy, particularly as they take prophetic positions that differ from prevailing political orthodoxy.
*See U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008 (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2009), 13; http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf (accessed February 26, 2008).
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Adapted from Synagogues in a Time of Change: Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements, edited by Zachary I. Heller, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Synagogues in a Time of Change:
Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements
Zachary I. Heller, editor
Jewish religious communities today share a number of challenges, from the increase in secular or unaffiliated Jews to emerging Jewish spiritual communities forming outside the synagogue. Brought together by Zachary I. Heller, associate director of the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, twenty of the leading Jewish thinkers have contributed to this comprehensive collection of essays. Each writer brings unique expertise and perspective in describing the development of contemporary religious movements in American Judaism, their interrelationships and tensions, and their prospects for the future. Their combined voices create a timely discussion of the many urgent issues bearing down on American synagogues.
Creating the Future Together:
Methods to Inspire Your Whole Faith Community
Loren B. Mean and Billie T. Alban
Congregations today face a multitude of challenges in trying to adapt to a quickly changing world. Balancing new concerns with core values is a complicated process that can leave too many members feeling that their voices and needs are not being met. Creating the Future Together explains how congregations can use large group methods to navigate these new waters. This book is designed to familiarize leaders with these whole-system approaches and to provide a conceptual framework for evaluating their potential usefulness against any given challenge.
Understanding and Celebrating Differences
by William M. Kondrath
Theologically and ecologically, differences foster life and growth, but discord within denominations and congregations frequently has to do with the inability of individuals and groups to deeply understand and value differences. In God’s Tapestry, Kondrath demonstrates a threefold process for becoming multicultural: recognizing our differences; understanding those differences and their significance and consequences; and valuing and celebrating those differences.
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor in her mid-thirties, suggests a different way for churches to approach young adults on their own terms. Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, she describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults to nurture relationships and foster spiritual growth.
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