Monday, October 11, 2010

How the West Was Won -- Part 2

In my previous blog I mentioned Finke and Stark's The Churching of America: 1776-2005. I thought a few quotes from their chapter "The Upstart Sects Win America, 1776-1850" might be enlightening. Quoted material will be in italics and cited for easy reference.
In 1776 the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians seemed to be the colonial denominations. Of Americans active in a religious body, 55 percent belonged to one of the three. And at the time it seemed certain that these groups would continue to be in the "mainline" for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in 1761 Ezra Stiles using a demographic projection technique taught him by Benjamin Franklin, proclaimed that one hundred years hence there would be seven million Congregationalists in the colonies and fewer than four hundred thousand Baptists. But by 1860 there were actually fewer than five hundred thousand Congregationalists in America, while the Baptists numbered nearly two million. What happened? [p.55]
In 1776 the Methodists were a tiny religious society with only 65 churches scattered through the colonies. Seven decades later they towered over the nation. In 1850 there were 13,302 Methodist congregations, enrolling more than 2.6 million members--the largest single denomination, accounting for more than a third of all American church members. For such growth to occur in eighty years seems nearly miraculous. [p.57]
Thus the central question comes into clear focus. Why did the leading denominations of 1776 crumble in a free market religious economy? What did they do wrong? Or what did the Methodists and the Baptists do right? [p.60]
Where there are winners there are losers. Much can be learned from a comparison of the two primary winners in the American religious economy between 1776 and 1850, the Methodists and Baptists, with the two primary losers, the Congregationalists and Episcopalians. There also is much to be gained from examination of the "also-ran" Presbyterians, whose growth kept pace with the population, but not with the increase in the proportions active in churches. [p.72]
Social scientists agree that the structure of an organization can have tremendous impact on its efficiency and success. [p.72]
The authors cite the local, democratic rule of the congregation in both Methodist and Baptist churches as significant. Methodist congregations were divided into small, close-knit groups called classes. Each class met on a weekly basis and was composed of approximately a dozen or more members. Here is where the zeal of camp meetings was maintained, intimate fellowship was achieved, testimonials were offered, new converts were instructed, and the behavior of the faithful was monitored. [p.73]
In this era the actual pastoral functions were performed in most Methodist churches by unpaid, local "amateurs" just like those serving the Baptist congregations up the road. [p.73] [This is in contrast to the Congregationalists and others that functioned with highly educated, well-paid, full-time clergy.]
Whereas the Baptists would form regional associations wherever four or five Baptist churches were established Congregational churches established outside of the New England region were often isolated units, lacking any regional support. [p.74, just had to thrown that one in]
The Presbyterians had established strong presbyteries throughout the nation, and ... they fared much better than did the Congregationalists or the Episcopalians during this era. Their growth, however, was constantly plagued by divisions within their organization. [75]
The organizational forms used by the Baptists and the Methodists were quite different, but their clergy were nearly interchangeable. In both denominations, ministers primarily came from the ranks of the common folk and, to a very important extent, remained common folk. Unlike the Congregational, Presbyterian, arid Episcopalian ministers, who typically were of genteel origin and were highly trained and well educated, the Baptist and Methodist clergy were of the people. They had little education, received little if any pay, spoke in the vernacular, and preached from the heart. [p.76]
In short, well-educated clergy entered a prestigious full-time profession with a variety of career opportunities, whereas the uneducated clergy answered a call from God and the people to serve the local church in saving souls. [By uneducated the authors mean they lacked formal theological education. They were not, the authors point out, less educated than the people they served.] Reliance on well-educated clergy also created a serious practical problem for the colonial mainline: a constant shortage of clergy. [p.80]
In contrast, Baptists and Methodists had an abundance of available clergy because the clergy came from the people. Both denominations developed systems that made it easy for gifted laymen to enter the ministry. Among the Baptists the local preacher, or farmer-preacher, was often a man of local origins whose call was ratified by his fellow congregants. [p.82]
Not only could the Baptists and Methodists generate surplus clergy, both denominations operated with incredibly low overhead. [p.82] More on this will follow.
That's enough for now. In good "speaker" speak, let me tell you what I'm trying to tell you and then continue developing my argument later: one of the key issues we need to face is that our current system of doing church is more like the Congregationalists than the old time Baptists and Methodists. Dependence on full-time, highly educated clergy, for example, limits how many churches we can start. So does our dependence of buildings and our emphasis on super-sized churches. Denominational conflict hindered Presbyterians and has hindered us as Baptists. Operating as isolated churches rather than working together hindered Congregationalists and will hinder us.
Back to the point I've tried to make all year. We've got to change the way we do church if we are going to reach the city. We've got to think differently about church if we are going to change. That's what I think. Let me know what you think.

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