Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life. – Review – book review

James Cavendish

Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life, by PENNY EDGELL BECKER. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 264 pp. $18.95.

In her book Congregations in conflict: Cultural models of local religious life, Penny Edgell Becker presents the results of her fieldwork on 23 religious congregations in the tri-village area of Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park, Illinois. Her analysis is insightful and engaging; a “must read” for cultural sociologists, organizational sociologists, sociologists of religion, or anyone interested in understanding the landscape of American congregational religion on the eve of the 21st century.

The richness of Becker’s presentation lies, in part, in her willingness to carry the reader through each stage of the research process. With an interest in explaining why congregational conflicts take the form that they do, she begins by selecting a variety of congregations — two Catholic parishes, two synagogues, and nineteen Protestant congregations — to ensure variation along dimensions identified in previous studies as relevant for conflict in congregations (e.g., size, polity, type, and a liberal or conservative religious orientation). Through detailed case studies, she examines the inner cultural dynamics of these congregations and concludes that conflicts have to do with how groups and individuals vie for power to symbolize and institutionalize particular understandings of the congregation’s mission and identity. In some cases, underlying variables like size and polity have some influence on the nature and frequency of conflicts, but it is local understandings of mission and identity that explain wh y conflicts take the form they do.

This awareness ultimately leads Becker to develop four models of local religious cultures that help us to understand the relationship between local culture and conflict. Each of these four models, understood analytically “as bundles of core tasks and legitimate ways of doing things” (p. 7), represents a distinct religious culture shaped by local understandings of identity and mission. In the “houses of worship” model, congregations concentrate on the tasks of religious education and worship. In the “family” model, congregations’ mission and identity focus as much on providing supportive relationships for members as on providing religious education and worship. In the “community” model, congregations focus on the same tasks as the “family” model, but place the highest emphasis on figuring out how to interpret and apply shared values. Finally, in the “leader” model, congregations have an activist orientation, striving to apply the official tenets of their denomination or tradition to various social and politic al issues in the larger community.

One of the chief strengths of Becker’s book is her ability to use congregational-level data to address current scholarly discourse about the decline of religion in the US over the last fifty years. According to Becker, many scholars who perceive that religion is declining base their perception on studies conducted at the individual level of analysis; both surveys of the general population and of denominational leaders show an erosion in Americans’ commitment to organized religion and in religious institutions’ engagement in the public arena. But these studies, according to Becker, have “missed something important by failing to look seriously at local religious cultures” (p. 7-8). Local religious cultures, Becker finds, continue to foster engagement in local civic life, as can be seen in congregations that engage in outreach to the poor or become involved in local social and political issues.

Perhaps the only limitation of Becker’s analysis is one that she herself admits: the fact that her selection of cases is limited to the predominantly white, middle-class areas of Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park, Illinois. One wonders, as Becker does herself, if these congregational models are generalizable to other congregations in other settings. While this may, indeed, be the primary limitation of Becker’s study, she successfully turns this limitation into an asset by showing in the final chapters how her analysis of a predominantly white, middle-class area allows her to address so convincingly the scholarly discourse about secularization and voluntarism and their effect on religious institutions. Because it is believed that the decline of religion is most apparent among white, middle-class, mainstream Protestants — the group most noted for their individual-expressive style of religious attachment — then the effects of secularization should be most apparent among communities like the tri-village area that Becker studies. Because these effects are not evident, Becker concludes that “the standard narrative about the effects of increasing voluntarism” needs to be rethought (pp. 215-216).

I would highly recommend this book for both academic and non-academic audiences interested in American congregational religion. Although its appeal to academics of all stripes is beyond dispute, this book will also pique the interest of church planners and applied researchers who conduct congregational needs-assessments. What better way for applied researchers to help congregations evaluate their needs and plan their futures than by understanding the congregation’s local religious culture?

COPYRIGHT 2000 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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