The Future of American Religion | Via Meadia
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.