Church growth—grappling with the new norms

“Loose connections” © 2011 The Christian Century. Used with permission. May 31, 2011.

A set of 2010 Gallup polls revealed that while religious participation (at least self-reported participation) is on the rise, Americans are less likely to identify with a particular religious group. People do not belong to churches the way they once did, even when they show up for religious services. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow argues that in recent years new ways of relating to institutions have developed—ways that are fluid and hard to pin down. People develop “loose connections.” At a time when many churches face declining membership, they must also grapple with the reality that even those who attend have a different idea of what participation means.

In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that the US lacked many institutions of the Old World, but that Americans were nevertheless a “nation of joiners.” They created and enthusiastically participated in voluntary organizations, including churches. Americans were not constrained by duty or tradition to join churches, but they did. The reason, Tocqueville decided, was “self-interest properly understood.” People saw the benefit of being connected. For 200 years, the voluntary nature of American religion has created a dynamic religious marketplace and produced vibrant religious congregations.

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