American Congregations, 2 vols.

American Congregations, 2 vols. – book reviews

Jackson W. Carroll

Some commentators have noted a paradox: While religious congregations constitute the most prevalent organizational form of religion in American society – the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches estimates the number to be over 350,000 – they have until recently been little studied by scholars. Part of the reason may be that congregations have sometimes been held as inconsequential, often unfaithful, forms of popular religion. In the 1960s, for example, a whole body of literature “dumped” on congregations as unfaithful expressions of religion, irrelevant for issues of public life. In addition, the neglect may be partly methodological: It is difficult and costly to treat congregations as the unit of analysis for large scale comparative surveys, and case studies of individual congregations have often seemed too limited and idiosyncratic. Recently, however, these biases and some of the methodological objections have been overcome, partly the result of the interpretive turn in sociology. Studies of congregations are back in vogue. Sociologists, historians, and even a few journalists have found the congregation an interesting and illuminating field of study. Much of this work has been encouraged by support from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., as is true of these two volumes.

In an essay in Volume 2, Stephen Warner uses the phrase, “de facto congregationalism,” to describe convergence across religious groups toward “the model of the reformed Protestant tradition of the congregation as a [local] voluntary gathered community” (p. 54). The convergence is happening, he suggests, despite growing religious diversity, and in concert with the declining significance of denominations. Warner’s assertion is amply demonstrated in Volume 1 of American congregations, subtitled Portraits of twelve religious communities. The twelve lengthy case studies (the longest is just over 100 pages) include several Christian congregations of differing traditions, a Mormon ward, a synagogue, a mosque, and a Hindu temple. Each case is a social history of a particular congregation, tracing it from its origins to the present. Most (not all) of the cases were written by historians, a strategy that the editors (historians themselves) chose to interest their colleagues in studying congregations and to demonstrate the significance of historical analyses of congregations. This they have amply done, and the resulting cases are not only grist for historical understanding, but sociologists and others should find them invaluable as well. Space limitations preclude comments on any single case. Let me, however, indicate some of the themes that the cases illustrate and address: the multiple manifestations of the sacred in American society and the importance of buildings as sacred spaces; the significance of leadership, especially clergy leadership, in shaping congregational life; the parallel importance of lay leadership; lay-clergy struggles over authority; shifts from communal to associational forms of congregational life; the interaction of congregations with their community contexts, especially the impact of community change on congregational fortunes but also the significant ministries that many congregations undertake in their communities; and, especially tensions over maintenance of ethnic identity and pressures to Americanize. One also observes how broader global and national events and issues – e.g., depressions, wars, social movements, fashion and fads – play themselves out on the local congregational scene. While 12 congregations do not a representative sample make, the diversity of those chosen and the depth in which the profiles are presented make for rich and (mostly) interesting reading.

The second volume, subtitled New perspectives in the study of congregations, is much shorter but also rich. It contains eight interpretive chapters by historians, theologians, ethicists, and a sociologist (Warner). Most essays, with the notable exception of that by Dorothy Bass, make limited use of the case histories of Volume 1. I find this regrettable, since connecting the authors’ interpretations with the data of the cases would have strengthened the coherence of the two volumes. Nonetheless, the essays, each interpreting congregations from particular perspectives, are generally interesting in their own right. They include Brooks Holifield’s survey and typology of changing conceptions and forms of the congregation in American history; Warner’s sociological analysis of types and functions of congregations in contemporary America, including the aforementioned de facto congregationalism; Langdon Gilkey’s proposal regarding alternative ways, based on different ecclesial traditions, for recovering and nurturing a vital religious center in congregations; Martin Marty’s analysis of the public and private roles of congregations and proposed alternative to privatization and mediating structure theories in the image of congregations as “meeting places;” Bass’s suggestive use of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre to ask how the congregations described in Volume 1 are bearers of tradition, giving local, culturally enmeshed expression to great transnational traditions; and Don Browning’s focus on congregational study as a form of “descriptive theology” and a contributor to the larger enterprise of “critical practical theology.” Jay Dolan and Robert Franklin round out Volume 2 with essays on congregational leadership: Dolan traces both Protestant and especially Catholic struggles over clergy versus lay control in parish and congregational life; and Franklin highlights the distinctive roles and types of pastoral leadership within black congregations, seeing such leadership as understandable only in the context of black congregational culture.

Both volumes begin with introductory chapters by the editors. The introduction to Volume 2 provides a particularly useful overview of the history, recent though it is, of congregational studies.

It is impossible to comment here in any detail on the merits and limitations of such a complex work. As in any collection, there are stronger and weaker contributions. Perhaps two general comments are in order: First, the work should be widely read by sociologists, historians, and others interested in American religious history. It will be difficult any longer to justify writing off congregations as unimportant or irrelevant as one explores many aspects of American society. My second comment is more a reminder of a possible misperception that the volumes permit than a serious criticism. While de facto congregationalism is not arguable, the volumes at times so privilege local congregational forms that one might conclude that other religious expressions beyond local assemblies are of little significance, whether historically or in the present. That would be a mistake that the editors, I am certain, would not encourage. Various connectional structures (including much-maligned denominations), hierarchies, special purpose organizations, and loosely organized small groups must also be included to round out the picture. This said, congregations are rightly the focus of these two volumes, and the attention given them is long overdue. One hopes that a paperback version is on the way that will make this valuable work more accessible to a wide audience.

Jackson W. Carroll Duke University

COPYRIGHT 1996 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group