BOOK REVIEW – The Churching of America 1776-1990

I stopped at the Bedford Library last weekend to let my daughter play with the model train and pick up The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg (great book, read it twice).

On my way back from the section for Dewey Decimal 306, where The Great Good Place is shelved, I saw this book by Robert Finke and Rodney Stark sitting on the lowest shelf. It had a title that would never catch on – The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy – but I was intrigued.

Part of my interest was founded in the fact that I’m teaching church history at New Hampshire Institute of Biblical Studies in October, but here was an idea I had never considered. The churching of America? What a fascinating concept. How did the United States become the most churched nation on earth? Never one to let questions sit unexplored, I checked it out and started reading it as soon as I could ensconce myself in my recliner.

Statistics and Records

The fascinating thing about this book is that it is entirely based on church membership statistics that the Census office has been collecting since 1850 and denominational records. It never occurred to me that the Congregationalists and Episcopalians of continental America kept membership records, but they did.

Finke and Stark explore the shift from the “mainline” denominations of Congregationalist and Episcopalian in post-Revolutionary War America. They show the rise of the Methodists in the early 19th century, the transition as the Baptists and Catholics emerged as the largest denominations after the American Civil War and even the rise of the independent and Pentecostal churches after the turn of the 20th century.

Some Shocking Things I Never Thought of

Here are a couple of statistics for you. In 1776, the total religious adherence in the newly born United States was less than 17% (an adherent is someone who is a member of a particular church, not necessarily someone who ascribes to the doctrine). The highest percentage of adherents in the USA was just after World War II, when nearly 60% of the American population were members of a church of some kind. While the population of the United States continues to expand and churches are growing and being planted in the multitudes, we are on the decline. Currently less than 50% of Americans are members of any church (including Catholic) although in 1990, nearly 90% claimed some kind of religious affiliation.

Questions to Contemplate

Since the authors are not particularly religious, they simply analyzed the information and provided tremendous amounts of original source material. It was fascinating for many reasons, but I think the reason this book held my interest was that I simply had never thought of American religion as evolving the way it apparently did.

I am not sure I agree with all of their assertions or conclusions but the book was still very thought-provoking. Some of the questions I asked myself:

  • Why do churches become “established”? It seems like as soon as we do, we start to lose ground.
  • What will be the next wave of church growth? Where will it come from? Despite all the talk over the past twenty years in the church growth movement, we’re not doing anything truly different.
  • Can we revitalize existing denominations? Or once a church goes into decline, does it remain so?

What Else Is Erik Reading Right Now?

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