Blocked by a towering mega-outlet on one side and encroached on by a big suburban mall on the others, the small church is overwhelmed by retail giants. Its founding pastor was forced to quit. Members left and morale slipped.

As described by Paul D. Numrich in a chapter of the newly published Public Religion and Urban Transformation,1 this church is not the large, enthusiastic body most denominations would expect in fast-growing locations. It is not seeker-friendly. It has no contemporary service.

But it is not a flop. Instead, this Naperville, Illinois, church is among many vital and often overlooked threads in the intricate, rich tapestry into which American congregational life has been rewoven in recent times.

Knowledge and Services
In developed nations, the way people work, live, and form values has been profoundly altered in recent years by the evolution of a new economy. This postindustrial economy emphasizes knowledge and services, not the authority and structure of our late industrial economy.

Too often, we hear that what church leaders should do in response to this changed world is to steer their congregations in nearly the same direction that a few well-publicized churches have taken. An example is the pressure on many mainline Protestant churches to adopt contemporary forms of worship.

What has happened at the Naperville church is an example of the varied courses open to churches today. As Numrich describes it, this church of middle-class professionals—stressed out, overextended and fretful—is evolving into a comfortable, face-to-face community “where harried, unappreciated, and anxious people can take heart that God loves them and calls them to a life of love in an often unloving society.”2

The long-struggling congregation has stumbled upon a vital niche in the community. It now provides an intimate, therapeutic place within a traditional religious context and is doing vital work in its community.

Religion Is Not In Decline
The arguments over worship that have arisen in recent decades are due partly to a failure to understand congregations as they actually are. The concepts many still hold about congregations are shaped by an outdated view that, in its extreme form, sees congregations as hopelessly out-of-it bulwarks of privatized religion in need of radical change.

The sociology of religion once held that its subject was of diminishing importance in modern society and had little to say about congregations. In recent decades, however, it has become apparent that religion is not in decline in the United States. So sociologists of religion have over the past decade descended en masse upon congregations. Starting with R. Stephen Warner’s New Wine in Old Wineskins (University of California, 1987), their studies have delivered insights that are sometimes in stark contrast to older notions.

Moreover, these studies sometimes differ markedly with ideas being offered by a growing body of church consultants. More than a few of these consultants appear to lack any substantial evidence for their assertions. A few mainline religious leaders, however, have leapt uncritically at solutions that promised growth.

A Society of Subcultures
The picture of congregations that is emerging from ongoing studies is one of amazing complexity, variety, and vitality. In our highly mobile society, religious bodies appear to play a central role by reconnecting people socially and religiously. We appear to have become a society of religious subcultures, rather than one consolidated around an overarching religious sensibility.

Faced with change, local religious bodies have evolved on their own, developing particular niches within their localities. In fact, congregations today are distinguished more by religious subculture, form, and style than by denomination or location.

Here are some examples from recently published studies:

  • In Nancy Eiesland’s A Particular Place (Rutgers, 2000), a once-prominent small church struggles to find its place against an emerging megachurch in a rapidly growing Southern town. Instead of seeking growth, as its regional body urges, the church instead offers its sense of place and history to the young families in search of community who are populating nearby tract homes.
  • In Congregations in Conflict (Cambridge, 1999) by Penny Edgell Becker of Yale University, we find an old Chicago suburb, largely occupied by married baby-boomer professionals. The author’s four models of congregations in this community—Houses of Worship, Family, Community, and Leader—provide powerful evidence that churches’ ways of doing things are the result of people’s needs for different kinds of religious centers.
  • Outside Indianapolis, a large, growing evangelical church with a far-flung membership merges its charismatic choruses and straight Bible talk with historic elements. As described in Congregations and Community (Rutgers, 1997) by Nancy T. Ammerman of Hartford Seminary, congregants file forward in the pewless modern auditorium toward a prominent cross, where they take bread and juice from the plate and the cup by intinction. Nearby, in a growing, tall-steepled mainline church, congregants find quiet and are able to put perspective in their lives amid traditional choral performances in a traditionally constructed sanctuary. Not only are these congregations different in religious subculture, but they also are different in their congregational style.

These examples do not mirror the popular emphasis on megachurches and seeker services, which, though they are an important and growing part of our present religious scene, are apparently not representative of American religious life today. Even somewhat appreciative studies on megachurches and seeker churches—Reinventing American Protestantism (University of California, 1999) by Donald Miller and Seeker Churches (Rutgers, 2000) by Kimon Howland Sargeant—show that many types of “new” church that have been held out as exemplary are often more rare than ordinary within their own movements.

A Rich Variety
These studies should also sound a note of caution to religious leaders. In attempts to revitalize existing congregations and start new ones as part of denominational goals to restore membership growth, mainline Protestant leaders in particular should not be focusing on singular solutions, such as style of worship. These solutions could damage congregations that actually are serving people well.

The reality that is emerging is that most churches are viable bodies providing vital community service. Moreover, in a society that has been radically reformed by the emergence of a postindustrial economy, we are finding that the congregation remains the main place where people, in the presence of the transcendent, are putting it all back together again.

Thus, the astute religious leader today is one who attempts to enhance viable, meaningful, and effective ministry in congregations and not radically alter it based on outmoded ideas about the state of congregations. This leader does not push singular courses of action, including particular styles of worship, whether contemporary or traditional.

When we peek behind the obstructions that have marred our view of the real life of congregations, we find that religion in America is flowing in a rich variety of directions, drawn by a variety of religious needs. Instead of a single theme, or variations on a single theme, the score from which present-day congregations play is a rich, multitudinous cacophony, beating many rhythms and striking inconsonant tones.

Before us now lies a marvelous religious vista in which people are reattaching themselves to the transcendent through congregations in dist
inct, creative, and startling ways.

1. Lowell W. Livezey, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
2. Ibid., pp. 200–201.