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The Future of American Religion

The typical American church today is organized around the ideas and realities of blue model America. Denominational structures (weakened by years of cutbacks in many cases) are bureaucratic staff organizations. Most local congregations own a large building and land; most of their budgets are eaten up by professional salaries and building maintenance. The mainline Protestant churches — Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, most Lutherans — are the most committed to the old model, but many others are in the same general condition.

Church organizations, especially in America, move with the times or die, and the ways Americans are re-imagining and re-engineering their social institutions are beginning to change the way churches work. A recent article in the Washington Post sheds some light on what these communities might look like, in a profile of a modern, informal church based in a local gym:

Aaron Coe, vice president for mobilization for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North America Mission Board, cited several factors for the shift, including a move away from traditionalism and the economic advantages of leasing space instead of building a church. […]

“As evangelicals, we don’t believe the building is the church, the people are the church,” Coe said. “The building itself has taken on less importance.”

Even outside the regular Sunday services, the churches find ways to engage people on friendly grounds. Church at the GYM holds its baptisms in members’ pools — events that turn into big backyard barbecues.

The first Christian churches in the early Roman empire were “house churches”: members met in the homes of the more affluent converts.  It could hardly be otherwise when the faith was illegal; in places today where believers face persecution, house churches remain a central feature of Christian life.

In colonial and 19th century America, church buildings were often the only available community space for everything from recreation to civic functions like town meetings. Even today many churches serve as polling places and rent out or otherwise make available rooms to organizations ranging from Twelve Step groups to scout troops to hot meal programs for senior citizens.

Building an impressive church building was also making a statement about the strength of your community. Catholic church buildings around the country provided a physical location for organizations like Catholic schools and provided a visible statement about the community’s existence and identity.  In the post World War Two suburb, when land was cheap, churches were growing, and the mortgage finance system that worked so well for the middle class also made it relatively easy and cheap for religious congregations to build, the big suburban church provided an anchor for new kinds of communities.  The most successful of these churches became megachurches — another new and distinctive form of religious organization that America has given the world.

But it’s not clear under today’s conditions that the old form of organization works as well. It may be smarter for churches to live off the land — renting space rather than buying, relying more on part time “tent maker” ministers (like St. Paul) and and concentrating on the development of deep bonds of trust and openness among members and on outward facing service and missions. In the future, successful churches may be those that concentrate on forming deep bonds between members and making church-members feel involved in part of a greater community.

The only thing one knows for sure is that each new generation of Americans has reshaped the structures and patterns of American religious life. There is not much reason to believe this has changed; post-blue America will have a post-blue church.

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  • Luke Lea

    From a century ago, an essay on Spiritual Economics by a famous American economist:

    “It is to be noticed also, that, at the spiritual as at the literal table, the plainer provision is the healthier. The adornments of the costly service are delicacies for the palate, rather than nourishment; and sometimes, like wines and desserts, they are slow poisons. For the real health of the people and of the preacher, and for the development of the Christian spirit in the church, let us have the second table rather than the first.

    There is another way more republican and more Christian— the establishment of a single table which all can attend. The food provided should be simpler, cheaper, and more nourishing than what is now provided, and the buildings larger and less luxurious. Men should attend church for sustenance, not for society. The tie that binds should be Christian love, not friendship based on similarity of taste and station. The Roman Catholic church fulfils the last of these conditions; having little social life, and holding its members together by a purely religious tie, it is able to unite rich and poor in its membership as few Protestant churches can do. To allege that the Roman Catholic religion is a poor one, is to strengthen the argument; if so much is accomplished by a poor religion, a better one, under equally favorable conditions, ought to accomplish still more. “XaXeita ra xaXa,” said Plato; the beautiful things are the hard things. This plan is better than the former, and therefore more difficult; for that very reason its adoption is ultimately probable.

    On the general optimistic principle that the world is improving, and that the ideal of the present will be the reality of the future, we are willing to believe that the church will one day possess something of the devotional spirit which led the disciples at Jerusalem not only to forget differences of wealth, but to annihilate them, and which is said to have led the refugees of the Roman Catacombs to organize a commune beneath the ground above which a despotism was established. There will be social intercourse indeed, but founded on religion. Struggling attempts at sociables may cease, but prayer-meetings will flourish; elements uncongenial in a drawing-room, will become congenial in a house of worship. The church will lose not only in the elegance of its furnishings, but also in the average refinement of its members: but for every step which it shall take downward, according to the standard of the world, it will take a step upward, according to the standard of its founder, till, attaining again the ideal which it realized, for a brief season in the past, it shall gather the few rich, and the many poor, into a company in which the flippant ties of polite society will be utterly impossible, but in which the deep bond of spiritual brotherhood will be forever assured”

  • Eric from Texas


    Thanks for a great column. I live in exurban Houston, and I see this phenomenon across the town. A number of local schools are leased for Sunday services to non-denominational Christian churches.

    Which gets to another column I hope you write soon – the rise of non-denominational Christian churches in red states. As a Methodist raised in the rural Midwest in the ’60s and early ’70s, it’s quite a striking development to see.

    As an aside, I’ve noticed that the local Catholic parishes in Texas take a different strategy when it comes to physical plant: “Go big or go home.” (My wife and children are Catholic, and we attend Mass each week as a family) You see a few huge churches that add services or expand the church buildings rather than add new churches or lease new space.

    Admittedly, the Catholic dioceses in Texas have the advantage of a large number of immigrants that have been arriving from traditionally Catholic countries.

    The diversity of the congregations are truly amazing and heartening. These gatherings would be touted by the left as a model of inclusion and tolerance if they were secular. Since they are religious, it’s the kind of story the largely white “NPR nation” deliberately ignores.

  • ms

    I just read your father’s post from a year or two ago about the changes in religious institutions during his time in the ministry, which seems to have been essentially a slow mo blue model collapse. I like the idea, common in Christian history, of returning in many ways to the model employed by early Christians. As in the Biblical stories, we have been humbled as we have perhaps drifted away from essential Christian principles. We’re not especially wicked I might add, it’s just what happens. I think we should regard the current state of affairs as an opportunity for renewal of the beautiful life-affirming truths of Christianity.

  • LenSp1

    One problem with using member’s homes is the conflict with neighbors and/or zoning laws. Large groups tend to create parking problems.

  • WigWag

    Is it really the main line Protestant churches who are most committed to what Professor Mead calls the “old model”? The Roman Catholic Church, or more accurately it’s various constituent parts, is one of the largest landowners in the United States. It is also one of the world’s largest landowners.

    In the United States, depending on who is doing the counting, the Church and it’s dioceses is one of the top ten landowners. John Malone of Liberty Media is number one (over 2.8 million acres owned) and Ted Turner is number two (2.2 million acres owned). Of course this excludes government owned land. Some estimates place the Catholic Church as high as number five on the list though it has actively been selling land to obtain revenue to pay settlements and judgements won by abuse victims.

    If the new mode for American religion is to depend less on owning property and more on developing deep bonds of trust and openness among members and outward looking services and missions, the Catholic Church may have as far to go as the main line Protestant churches.

  • Eurydice

    You know, with the color blue being attached to every single example of human inefficiency, I don’t even know what “blue model” means anymore. It seems that “blue model” has morphed into “spending money on stuff I don’t think we should be spending money on.”

  • WigWag

    I can’t help but wonder whether Professor Mead really believes that American religion is intertwined with the “blue” model and that adopting a new model of religion is critical to the survival of a devout America. It seems to me that old time religion is doing just fine.

    I’m afraid that what he calls the “blue” model is becoming a bizarre little talisman for the good professor that he drags out of some cubby hole in the Mead Mansion whenever the mood strikes him. Is he really so convinced about the verisimilitude of his theory that he thinks it applies to religion and culture in the same way it applies to politics and economics?

    As he did last week in his post on the Obama policy on contraception, Professor Mead misses the real story hiding in plain sight. The future of American religion has little to do with the “blue” model and everything to do with how religion makes it’s peace with modernity.

    Religion has never been particularly good at accommodating the modern, knowledge-based world. As far back as the fourth century, the noxious Saint Cyril and his roaming hordes of Christian hooligans burned the Alexadrian Library to the ground (and for kicks killed thousands of Jews and pagans in the process). Judas Maccabeus, revered by modern Jews as a hero, was as much of a brute as Cyril and was equally disdainful of Greek learning as Cyril was of the stored wisdom contained in thousands of codices and scrolls housed in Alexandria. Anyone who wants to reflect on the Islamic commitment to learning need only count the number of Nobel prizes earned by Muslims.

    As horrendous as this heritage is, how religion interfaces with the modern world is still a conundrum. In the less developed world and in the less developed parts of the developed world things are still problematical. In contemporary Africa Roman Catholics still believe in exorcism, raising the dead and witch craft. In Israel, many ultra orthodox men still believe they should be protected from temptation by having their wives, daughters, sisters and female neighbors ride in the back of the bus. In Somalia and Egypt and elsewhere in the Islamic world, grandmothers still sew their granddaughters labia shut to protect their virtue. In the United States, millions of evangelical Christians still believe that the earth’s age is measures in the thousands rather than the billions of years. All of this should be called what it is; the superstitions believed by uneducated or preternaturally dumb people.

    To modern religious people who have eschewed these superstitions the question remains about how to maintain their faith in light of scientific evidence that destroys much of the dogma they have been taught to accept. The fact that arriving at this accommodation isn’t easy is amply demonstrated by the fact that religion among educated people is dying in the west though this trend may be less pronounced in the United States. How religion learns to exist in a synergistic relationship with science continues to be the main issue confronting that segment of the American religious community that is educated and thoughtful. As for less educated or intelligent segment of the religious community, presumably they will continue to howl at the moon as their ancestors did.

    The “blue” model has very little to do with any of this.

  • P. Ami

    The “blue model” theory basically falls on it’s face when one considers that bureaucracy, in the West is directly handed down from Augustus, down to Diocletian, on through Constantine, to the church diocese and eventually the Catholic Church. The “blue model” is a church model minus G-d. It is charity minus redemption. It is pity without salvation. It is punishment without prophesy. Still, bureaucracy is very much in the nature of churches, though perhaps not the Way.

    Intelligence has no more to do with religion then it does with science. Another way to say it, great minds propose sophisticated and creative ideas. Many have been religious and others materialist. People tend to focus on material advancement and the ideas that promote them. Others choose to be occupied by other great ideas. The task today is to find where the two cults might reach agreement and diffuse tension where they may not. Self-congratulatory essays that imply the intelligence of the writer and denigrate the talents of his opponent veer well into ad hominum attack and do not rectify civil disagreement.

  • RSC

    The Catholic Church is not quite the centralized bureaucracy people think it is. I’m not sure of the details, but I believe every diocese runs its own financial show. And in each diocese there are religious orders, institutes, colleges, etc. who operate on their own with their own funds with only the barest doctrinal nod to the local bishop. It’s quite a mix of more or less independent-minded institutions. And the official Church hierarchy has already in many cities closed churches, relocated schools, etc. to serve the changing needs of the faithful. It always has had to adapt.

  • Gerald Owens

    Absent from this discussion are the “hot” religions: The Pentacostal/Charismatic movements all over the world and the Charismatic push within the Roman Catholic Church, whose fundamental premise is that of connecting man to God via the Holy Spirit indwelling in the believer (the “Spirit” that Jesus was referring to when he said to the samaritan woman at the well that “those who worship Him (God) must worship him in Spirit and in truth”. The blue model of church as social center, or the progressive model of church as a harness to force the believers to charity and acquiesce to government mediated charity, both ignore the implications of “God with us” that these “hot” religions advocate as an alternative.

    This is not to say that this third group of Christians ignores the commands to fellowship with one another and practice charity to the poor. Rather, the old models emphasized those commands in the typical fanatic’s fashion that ignores cause and effect, while the charismatics/pentecostals see those as emergent behaviors that spring as fruit from a tree taking its nourishment from He who is the foundation of the Universe via that connection established by the Holy Spirit.

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