Sociology 3301: Sociology of Religion

Sociology 3301: Sociology of Religion
Lecture 16: Denominationalism and Congregationalism I
Now that we have looked at the processes by which religions institutionalize,
along with the ways that sociologists categorize different types of religious organizations,
we consider denominationalism and congregationalism as central organizing principles of
As the complexity of classification models for various religious organizations
continued to increase over time, even then it faces a social reality that has led some to
conclude that church-sect theories have become such a hopeless hodge-podge of
definitions and variables that they have lost meaning and utility. For this reason, it may
be best to approach the organization of religion from different starting points. For
example, the U.S. could be termed a “denominational society.” Those who feel this way
are often led to reject the notion that a denomination is a compromise or halfway house
between a sect and a church. Others focus their organizational lens even closer to the
ground by looking at local congregations and arguing that the central organizing principle
is “de facto congregationalism.” To understand organized religion from either
perspective, we need to understand denominations/denominationalism,
congregations/congregationalism, and the relationship between the two.
While historically religious establishments existed in the American colonies, the
U.S. is now constitutionally diverse in 2 ways: (1) multiple religious groups have been
woven into its fabric from the beginning; and (2) this pluralism became embodied in the
disestablishment of state religion in the U.S. Constitution, allowing for the free and
voluntary exercise of religion and the proliferation of religious groups over time. From
the rational choice perspective, this has created a free market where many groups
compete for the attention of religious consumers – with the inevitable winners and losers
along the way.
Ammermann (2006) argues that both denominations and congregations are part of
larger “organizational fields,” and susceptible to influences from it. Both denominations
and congregations from all traditions thus have a tendency to become like each other to
some extent. This propensity to gradually morph into similar forms is called institutional
isomorphism. One major development in this respect is the rise of very large
congregations known as “megachurches.” We will consider this, along with their
implications for the marketing of religion, especially to the unchurched and religious
The Denominational Society:
Denominationalism is a unique and recent way of organizing religion. Bellah
(1970) claimed that the early stages of religious development are characterized by an
undifferentiated religious worldview such that people experienced the world as single
cosmos in which religion was diffused through all of life (i.e. religious community and
society were identical). Over time, however, religion becomes differentiated from other
social institutions (especially the political), and distinct religious organizations
(“confessions”) arise. Initially a single religious organization dominates a particular
geographic area (e.g. Catholic Europe in the Middle Ages). Over time, that religious zone
itself comes to be internally differentiated (e.g. the Reformation, with the emergence of
Lutheranism and Calvinism alongside Catholicism). While this fostered some religious
pluralism between societies, each “confession” attempted to align itself with the political
powers to become the officially sanctioned church in its territory (e.g. Lutheranism in
Germany and Scandinavia; Catholicism in France, Spain and Italy). In each case, political
citizenship and confessional identity were linked. Hence, conflict rather than peaceful
coexistence was the rule, with religious persecution prevalent. Indeed, the 16th-17th
centuries saw mass movements of religious refugees as Protestants drove out Catholics
and vice versa, while everyone drove out the Baptists and other sectarians.
Some driven out of Europe were part of the Calvinist Puritan movement who
sought to reform the Church of England. They ended up founding the New England
Colonies and creating Congregationalist religious establishments of their own there. In 6
more of the early colonies the Church of England was established. Rhode Island,
Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania had no official religious establishment, being
originally more diverse than the rest. Ultimately, however, no single confession
dominated the early American religious scene.
Religious disestablishment and religious freedom are key structural preconditions
for denominationalism to flourish. “The denominational society” (Greely) is one
characterized by neither an established church nor dissenting sects but religious bodies or
associations of congregations united under a common historical and theological umbrella,
that are presumed equal under the law, and that generally treat other bodies with an
attitude of mutual respect. As a result of this social organizational adjustment to the fact
of religious pluralism, there are now hundreds of denominations in America (e.g. 31
Baptist denominations and 17 in the Calvinist/Reformed tradition alone). Moreover, such
denominationalism has also become a global phenomena (33,830 different Christian
denominations worldwide as of 2001). While, strictly speaking, denominationalism is a
Protestant dynamic, it has been accepted in principle by all major religious traditions in
the U.S., representing the Americanization of other religious traditions (e.g. Mormonism,
Catholicism, 7th Day Adventists; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist
Judaism; the Nation of Islam and the American Society of Muslims; Buddhist and Hindu
branches or schools may further evolve into denominations, etc).
Theology and Social Processes in the Proliferation of Denominations:
The development of this diversity resulted from both theological disputes and
innovations, on one hand, and fundamental social processes like immigration and racial
conflict, on the other.
Methodism, for example, has been heavily influenced by theological differences
and race. Originally a revitalization movement led by John Wesley in the Church of
England, its preachers emphasized personal holiness. It broke from the Church of
England when the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1784. By 1816 the
African Episcopal Church (AME) was organized by African American congregations
seeking independence from white Methodists, and soon after the AME Zion Church split
as well. In 1844 the Methodists split into separate north and south groups over the issue
of slavery, while the southern branch split with the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church
in 1870. In 1939, the two historically white branches, along with the Methodist Protestant
Church, reunited to form the Methodist Church, then joined in 1968 by the Evangelical
United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church – the second largest Protestant
denomination in America. All of these splits and mergers were related to issues of race,
not theological differences.
Other denominations were also affected by racial issues. Presbyterians were split
over slavery, dividing into northern and southern branches in the 19th century, while
Baptists formed the Southern Baptists in 1845 over this issue, with freed slaves creating
the National Baptist Convention in 1895.
As for immigration, historically Lutheranism has been a predominantly white
denomination given its origin in northern Europe. As such, its history has been shaped
more by theological issues more than race. When Lutherans immigrated, they brought
their national churches with them, along with their differing languages and cultural
practices that prevented unity among groups. As such, Lutheran denominations for
Danes, Finns, Swedes, etc proliferated in the 19th-early 20th centuries as diverse northern
European immigrants came to America. Yet, over time as these immigrants assimilated,
theological differences became more prominent than nationality, with splits occurring
more often for reasons such as interpretation of scripture, ordination of women and gays,
The history of denominations is not only one of division and schism but also of
mergers and consolidation. For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America,
the largest Lutheran branch in America, was formed out of a complex series of mergers
beginning in the early 20th century and ending in 1987.
Such developments are not just the remnants of the historical past, but reflect the
dynamism of the American religious economy. Denominations continue to develop, die,
split and merge today.
Finally in this respect there is innovation. A significant source of new
denominations involves the theological innovations of religious entrepreneurs like Joseph
Smith (Mormonism), Charles T. Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses), and Mary Baker Eddy
(Christian Science). All such groups are innovative updatings of the Christian tradition.
Although attacked early as “cults,” they have grown to large denominations over time.
Beyond Denominations?
While still a denominational society, there are some significant developments
today that suggest the importance of looking beyond denominations. I will outline three
of them.
Transdenominational Evangelicalism involves the fact that most people recognize
evangelicalism as a movement that crosses denominational boundaries. It is not a
denomination or even a collection of denominations. It is in fact a transdenominational
movement rooted (in the U.S. at least) in the founding of the National Association of
Evangelicals in 1942. This is a movement in which many people from different
backgrounds, in different ways, feel at home. Institutionally it is built around networks of
parachurch agencies, including seminaries, publications, colleges, and publishing houses.
Some churches and denominations also contribute. Indeed, observers have noted the
influence of this movement even within otherwise mainline denominations.
Evangelical Protestantism’s transdenominational organization may be one source
of its strength in the U.S. today. The interesting theoretical issue has to do with the
plausibility of traditional religious worldviews in the modern pluralistic world. Berger
(1966) spent a lot of time discussing plausibility structures, social interactions and
processes within a group that serve to protect and sacralize its shared meanings and
outlooks. He argued that for belief systems to survive they must be rooted in plausibility
structures. Understanding a religious group as a reference group is critical here. People
are capable of accepting all sorts of beliefs if enough other people seem convinced.
Individuals look to others for a definition of the situation when uncertain themselves.
When dealing with the meaning of life, the supernatural, or the ultimate cause of
perplexing events, ambiguity is a given. Plausibility structures, which typically contain
rituals, symbols, music, architecture, reference groups, emotional dynamics, selfvalidating beliefs, and so on, are especially critical in making beliefs credible if they run
counter to those of the larger pluralistic society. Today, people are constantly exposed to
meaning systems and ideas who seem to contradict their own ideas, and pluralism itself
can be a factor that undermines the plausibility structures that support religious belief.
Yet, some, such as Smith (1998) question Berger’s argument. He maintained that
American evangelicalism is thriving very much because of and not in spite of its
confrontation with modern pluralism. He suggested a subcultural identity theory of
religious strength in American society: religion survives and can thrive in pluralistic,
modern society by embedding itself in subcultures that offer satisfying morally orienting
collective identities which provide adherents meaning and belonging.
Part of evangelicals’ collective identity involves distinguishing themselves from
non-evangelicals as a reference group (as an “outgroup”), and thereby creating some
boundaries, but simultaneously keeping the boundaries somewhat permeable so as not to
cut themselves off from the wider society (as fundamentalists do). They thus create the
social basis (plausibility structure) necessary to support their religious beliefs. Rather
than requiring “macro-encompassing sacred cosmos,” they only need “sacred umbrellas”
to maintain their religious beliefs in the pluralistic modern world. Small, portable,
accessible, relational worlds enable their beliefs to make complete sense. Thus,
evangelicalism as a transdenominational movement helps provide the plausibility
structures that support individuals’ beliefs and help make evangelical Protestantism one
of the strongest traditions in American religion.
Nondenominationalism is a second religious development that takes us beyond
denominations proper – both in the form of nondenominational congregations and
individual religious identities. More and more people choose not to identify their religion
according to a traditional denominational label, and organizationally nondenominational
congregations are the single largest category of faith community in terms of affiliation
(roughly 18% of U.S. congregations). If they could actually be called a single
denomination, they would constitute the third largest denomination in terms of
This is a movement that is interrelated with evangelicalism. In one survey, 20% of
evangelicals reported attending nondenominational churches. As well, between 19902008 most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among such groups (from
5%-11.8%), and they tend to have the youngest age composition. Some argue that a
generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic
Christianity in the U.S., one on which it may soon be able to attach a denominational
category for research purposes.
Paradenominational Groups and Organizations: Thirdly, it has been argued
(Wuthnow, 1987) that U.S. religion is experiencing a dramatic shift rooted in the
proliferation of special purpose groups. Since the 19th century, these have operated
alongside denominations, crossing boundaries and enabling joint efforts between various
groups (e.g. the American Bible Society). This has continued and accelerated, with
religiously motivated people mobilizing associations across denominational lines to
address various public issues like war and peace, abortion, hunger, civil rights, gender
issues, etc. Wuthnow argues that, until the 1970s, members of such organizations still felt
primary loyalty to their denominations, which defined their core values and sense of
morality. Special purpose groups remained secondary. Yet, since then intense conflicts
have arisen over many issues related to moral conduct and how to redefine reality.
Wuthnow believes that society has polarized into conservative and liberal camps, each
with their own sets of special purpose groups. Members of each camp may belong to the
same congregation or denomination (some of which have become more inclusive), so that
community itself is split and no longer able to claim the moral authority or to elicit the
deep loyalty necessary to define meaning and to sacralize values. The deeper loyalty is
shifting to the paradenominational, issue focused groups, which are growing remarkably
in both number of groups and in membership.
This development could fundamentally alter the structure of religion in society, so
that religious conservatives from various denominations who are adherents of, for
example, The Christian Voice, may find that this paradenominational group elicits more
loyalty and does more to provide a sense of identity and belonging than do the individual
denominations to which they belong. As such, denominations may no longer be the
central structural element of religion. While Wuthnow’s ideas here remain a controversial
thesis, they, like the other issues above, do provide a new way of thinking about the
historic shifts that appear to be occurring in religion today.
Denominations and De Facto Congregationalism:
Organizationally, denominations are a group of congregations linked through
centralized bodies to which congregations grant some overriding authority and to which
individuals direct some loyalty as members. While they are an organizational reality, and
people often use denominational labels to describe themselves, nobody actually
“belongs” to a denomination. Rather, they are members of particular congregations.
These are often – though decreasingly – affiliated with denominations. Nevertheless,
most people’s experiences of denominations are wholly mediated by the local
congregation to which they belong. This is the centrifugal force that Warner (1993)
described as “an institutionalized bias of American religious life” called “de facto
congregationalism.” Regardless of the formal structure of authority in a denomination or
religious tradition, local congregations tend to have a significant measure of autonomy to
do their own thing.
Meanwhile, how denominations officially relate to local congregations is
determined by the denominational “polity” structure. Three ideal types have been
identified by Moberg (1984):
First, in a congregational polity the authority of the local congregation is
supreme. Thus, though thousands of Baptist congregations in the U.S. are typically part
of various denominations (e.g. the Southern Baptists), they are nevertheless formally
independent. They choose their own pastors, control their own finances, own their own
property, etc. Nevertheless, this is not pure independence as some such denominations
have ways of exercising influence through programmatic support that encourage
similarities among congregations in other ways.
Secondly, an Episcopal polity, best exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church,
places ultimate, hierarchical authority over local churches in the centralized hands of
Bishops. Each of nearly 20,000 U.S. congregations is geographically defined as part of a
diocese, under the authority of a local Bishop, and, ultimately, under the authority of the
Bishop of Rome – the Pope. This doesn’t mean that de facto denominationalism does not
exist, and there is indeed much diversity and differences between parishes due to their
degree of local autonomy, in how they implement or choose not to implement universal
rites promulgated by the hierarchy. Differences in style often result in Catholics “church
shopping” to find the local congregational culture to which they feel comfortable. Many
parishes in such a structure still have a life of their own.
Beyond the Catholic Church, other denominations have some form of Episcopal
polity, with a Bishop having some authority over Eastern Orthodox, Anglican,
Episcopalian, Methodist, and some (but not all) Lutherans. Nevertheless, as above, many
are also affected by congregationalism, input from local clergy and laypeople at
conferences, local ownership and authority in specific decisions.
Thirdly, Presbyterian polity represents a middle ground between the two above.
Like Episcopal polity it is hierarchical; like Congregational polity it officially gives some
authority to the local church (some even feel it provided a model for the U.S. federal
system of government). Hence, there are typically levels of governance. Local churches
are grouped into larger assemblies, sometimes called presbyteries, which are grouped into
synods, which are brought together in general assemblies. The latter have authority to set
policy for the denomination, but decisions at that level have to be filtered down through
the lower levels for final approval. Local congregations have authority insofar as they
elect members to represent them at higher levels. While the Presbyterian Church is
organized this way, one nevertheless can easily find congregations who use hymnals
other than the ones officially approved, or that have clergy not trained at the official
seminaries. This de facto congregationalism means that the label Presbyterian on the door
no longer conveys a great deal of information to the first time visitor.
While the idea of a congregation comes from Christianity, the social fact of de
facto denominationalism means that this organizational form is not limited to the
Christian tradition. Thus scholars have noted American Muslim convergence toward the
congregational model. While most of the nearly 2000 mosques in the U.S. are relatively
new (87% founded since 1970; 62% since 1980), their congregational organization
differs from the rest of the world – where a mosque is simply a place to pray and an
individual Muslim cannot be a member thereof. The older idea is that the mosque belongs
to God, the Imam simply leads the prayers, does not work for an organization, and does
not need formal training as such. Indeed, Mosques were historically government
supported in other countries, so they had to make major changes in how they operate in
North America. Because they could not count on government funding, they adopted the
congregational model and were supported by local members. They also began to put
more emphasis on religious education, religious holidays at the mosque rather than with
families, socializing, and life cycle celebrations. This is a major change in the role of the
mosque and the imam for many Muslims.
Such changes have also been seen among other non-Christian Asian immigrant
groups in recent years, including Indian Hindus and Japanese, Korean, and Laotian
Buddhists. De facto congregationalism is a structural reality of American religious life. It
reflects principles of the open systems model: organizations are influenced by inputs
from the larger social environment. In this case, the key aspect of the environment is the
pattern of organization constituted by other religious organizations. It exerts influence
particularly under conditions of uncertainty for new organizations, like those founded by
immigrant religious communities. In effect, organizations that copy other organizations
have a competitive advantage, while reliance on established, legitimated procedures
simultaneously enhances organizational legitimacy and survival characteristics.