Only megachurches and “minichurches” in the United States?

Recent data suggests there may be two very different sizes of churches in the United States:

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According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100…

“Shrinking attendance figures coupled with an increase in the number and percent of small congregations obviously indicates that a good many congregations are not growing,” the study’s authors found. “Indeed, the median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%,” meaning half of all congregations declined in attendance by at least 7%.

While most congregations are small, however, most worshippers attend a larger congregation. Another prominent report, the National Congregations Study, found that while the average congregation is small — about 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.

The report reflects the reality that religious Americans are being sorted into two kinds of churches — megachurches, and minichurches like Cornerstone.

Are they being sorted or has this been going on for a while? On the larger end are megachurches, congregations with more 2,000 members. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades. Megachurches get a lot of attention due to their size, their programs, and leaders. Since each one attracts many attendees, they could equal dozens of smaller churches in terms of people there for services. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades.

If the primary marker of a religious congregation is size and growth, then megachurches are more successful. The article goes on to talk about different reasons why people and leaders might choose smaller congregations. The megachurch experience is not for everyone. Whether there is much left for small congregations if much of the resources and attention is going to larger congregations is another story.

And the answer regarding this competition between megachurches and minichurches might be in between. The big megachurches are known, small congregations are everywhere, and a sizable set of Americans worship in congregations of several hundred. These medium sized congregations can offer some of the amenities of the biggest churches while staying at an approachable size.

The academic rabbit trails to watching a particular TV show for fun/analysis

In a recent trip to the campus library, I checked out the first season of a television show. I briefly interacted with the checkout clerk who remarked that I was in for a good viewing experience. My path to this show was not a straightforward one; rather, it involved reading, my own research, and a lot of time. Here is the path to this one TV show:

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  1. I develop an interest in the sociology of culture as an undergraduate studying both sociology and anthropology. The study of the “processes of meaning-making” becomes one of my primary graduate school interests and I continue to work within this subfield today. In my daily life, any cultural product or expression can then be both experienced and analyzed. This can be applied both to cultural activity as well as places, connected to my interest in suburbs and cities.
  2. Even as I continue with the sociology of culture, I also run into media studies, a field that combines insights from multiple fields and tackles all sorts of media. I teach a class titled “Culture, Media, and Society” where we consider multiple media and cultural forms including documentaries, films, television, comics, theater, music, art, news coverage, social media, and other phenomena. In conducting research on social media (several studies here, here, and here), I also encounter media studies research and journals.
  3. Several years later, I combine an interest in places and media by publishing two studies: one considers television shows set in suburbs and one examines the role of McMansion on The Sopranos. These works straddle the lines between sociology and media studies.
  4. In the summer of 2021, I read the book Divine Programming by television studies scholar Charlotte Howell. I watch one television shows Howell points out treats religion seriously (see posts here and here).
  5. With a little more flexibility in my schedule as we reach the holidays and approach the end of the semester, I decide to watch a second show featured in Howell’s book to continue to explore and enjoy how religion is depicted in television.

There are certainly other ways to come to a television show, including receiving recommendations from friends and family, reading a review, browsing or receiving a recommendation on a streaming service, and more. My path is probably not a typical one. But, I am also reminded of the ways that knowledge and studies develop as an academic: there is not necessarily a linear path toward a predetermined goal and a guaranteed outcome plus there can be a lot of time involved as ideas and projects wax and wane.

Acknowledging that a building proposal from a religious group can lead to a “painful” process

Religious groups regularly propose changes for land and buildings and I have studied this both in the western suburbs of Chicago and the New York City region. After a City Council vote to approve changes to land owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville (see earlier posts on the unusual amount of attention this drew and approval by the planning and zoning commission), the mayor of Naperville acknowledged that it had been a difficult process:

A large crowd in the city council chamber erupted in applause when the vote was completed. Each council member and Chirico expressed gratitude for the work put in by all parties throughout the process that played out over nine months in the city’s planning and zoning commission with 500 speakers in 15 meetings.

“We all know it was painful,” Chirico said. “There were times where I was entertained. There were times where I was angry. There were times where I was throwing my shoe at the TV. Every emotion it seemed like it went through.”

Even as life will now continue with the different actors involved, acknowledging the difficult process is noteworthy. In my study of such proposals, the religious groups do not always reach the outcome they desire nor do communities and residents always get what they want. Here, describing the process as “painful” could refer to a number of things – the time it took, figuring out the particulars, working with all of the interested parties, etc. – and very involved may have attained exactly what they wanted at the beginning.

It is also worth noting that the same group and site may be up for conversation again in the future. In order to help the proposal succeed, the Islamic Center of Naperville agreed to submit future changes for the building and property for review:

The final step pushing the proposal over the finishing line was a concession by the Islamic Center to submit its third, fourth and fifth phase to additional city council review when the time comes. A group representing the nearby subdivisions of Ashwood Pointe, Pencross Knoll and Tall Grass agreed to accept the proposal with those conditions.

Will the process at that point be less painful? The group has made two proposals and both times has encountered numerous questions from neighbors and community members. Some of the particular actors involved in those two discussions may be gone but the underlying questions may not.

Divine Programming and the last two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that takes religion seriously

In September, I wrote about reading the academic study Divine Programming and watching seasons one and two of the TV show Rectify. I have now watched the final two seasons of the show, seasons three and four, and was interested to see the role religion played. Here are some thoughts.

  1. Religion is certainly not as important to the plot as it was in the first season. The number of times it is mentioned decreases. There is no presence of organized or institutional religion; it is all personal or individual.
  2. The primary religious character has a return to their faith in the final season. This does not mean everything turns out correctly for them or religion helps solve big issues. It appears that their privatized faith emerges again after going through some personal trials.
  3. The final episodes interact with the themes of hope and disappointment. Arguably, these themes run throughout the entire series; when Daniel is released from prison at the beginning, this does not necessarily lead to long-term consequences for the characters as they engage with what happened in the past and their current circumstances. These are themes that certainly fit with a religious theme. Why do bad things happen? Why are we disappointed? What gives us hope? In the end, the themes of hope and disappointment are left more to the individual characters and immediate family to address, not to religion.

Considering the full show, religion did matter in the narrative arc of the show but it was not a primary force, one that even a majority of the characters engaged with, and did not provide hope or disappointment in the end. Other forces and actors were more influential and the show, like many American narratives, puts a lot of hope in individuals and close relationships among family.

The consequences of losing the physical dimensions of religious and spiritual rituals

A psychologist encouraging people to adopt religious rituals – though not necessarily the religion associated with them – highlights the physical dimension of these rituals:

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One thing that does worry me is a move toward doing these things online. We had to do it remotely because of covid-19. But these rituals are designed to happen and work best in the presence of other individuals. When we’re together, our heart rate synchronizes our breath. These mechanisms are leveraging our minds and bodies. Why do people kneel in church? There’s research showing that if you show people information on a screen above them, they place more emphasis and believe more on the higher screen because they’re looking up at it. Physiologically, we interpret something higher verticality as more authoritative. If you’re sitting on your computer or watching on your phone, I worry that we’re going to lose a lot of the power and majesty of certain rituals because we’re doing them remotely. That’s not how they were designed to work.

It is hard to overstate the communal factor of physical rituals. As sociologist Randall Collins describes in Interaction Ritual Chains, the bodily presence of others enhances the individual and collective experience.

This train of thought is also part of the reason sociologist Robert Brenneman and I wrote Building Faith. A recent trend is that people interested in religion or spirituality do it on their own and in secular settings. But, this is not what numerous religious traditions have highlighted for thousands of years. They have buildings that are intended to enhance the experience of the transcendent as well as enhance fellowship among believers. They may structure this space in different ways – whether to emphasize the preached Word, music, prayer, viewing other attendees, etc. – but they generally agree that buildings shape religious faith. Move those beliefs and practices to other spaces or to no spaces and it is something different.

Could people eventually have a faith or set of spiritual beliefs and practices and no common rituals whatsoever? Remove the physical structures and a group of people around them doing something similar and it is easier to imagine.

Divine Programming and watching two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that treats religion seriously

This summer I read the book Divine Programming: Negotiating Christianity in American Dramatic Television Production 1996-2016. Charlotte Howell argues that television often utilizes two techniques when portraying Christian faith: keeping it at a critical distance or depicting it a cultural feature of Southern life. However, not all television shows do this. One critically-acclaimed show Howell highlighted, Rectify, sounded interesting.

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I have now watched the first two seasons of the show. And it is indeed interesting to see how religion in incorporated as part of the plot. The main character in the drama, a man who has been released from death row even as law enforcement and legal actors are interested in putting him back in prison, finds religion in the middle of the opening season. He has a conversion and a baptism. He is attracted to this faith through the example of his sister-in-law who attends church regularly, encourages her husband to be more faithful, attends a small group, and has a gentle spirit.

Yet, at least through two seasons, the reassurances faith provides have difficulty matching up the problems the characters face. The released prisoner finds that his conversion is perhaps less important to his thriving than interacting with his sister-in-law. The sister-in-law confronts new problems and her faith no longer provides all the answers. The other main characters do not seem to interact with faith much at all and their own self-interest and hurt drives their decisions. Outside of several individual characters engaging religion (a common approach in American religiosity) , it is not present for the other characters or the community.

The faith of this show is not simple or does not always provide an answer or does not even matter to many of them. The characters have religious highs and lows and wrestle with how faith matters in real situations. The faith on the show is not front and center in the way it is in Seventh Heaven (also a case study in Howell’s book) nor is it derided or just a cultural artifact.

At the same time, it is clear that faith or religion is not driving the plot: human desires are. I will keep watching and see whether this is ultimately commentary about the ability or inability for religious faith to intercede in human affairs.

Preserving an important Chinese American church building constructed in 1968

Here is a discussions of whether to preserve an important church building in Queens, New York:

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Classis Hudson, the regional governing body of the CRCNA, will vote on Tuesday on whether to authorize an interim committee to figure out the future of the congregation. The Queens church officially has only 27 members, according to the denomination’s website, and no full-time CRC pastor. The church’s founder, Paul C. H. Szto, led the church until he died in 2019 at the age of 95…

The Queens church raised its own funds to build a church building next door in 1968. It is believed to be among the first—if not the very first—Chinese congregation to build its own church building in the US. With the church building in place, and a new wave of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants pouring into the country, the Queens CRC became a waystation for Chinese American Christians and a center for Reformed thought in the Chinese American community…

Pastor Szto, who had studied under the Dutch Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary and under Christian existentialist Paul Tillich at Union Theological Seminary, turned the space into a lecture hall, seminar room, and theological library with more than 18,000 books. According to The Banner, an official CRCNA publication, Szto and his wife housed and hosted more than 2,000 students, immigrants, and refugees in his home…

Mary Szto would like to see the parsonage become a museum and cultural center to carry on that legacy and tell the story of her father’s life’s work and the history of Chinese American Christianity in New York City. She notes that Chinese American church history tracks closely with real estate laws and business ownership restrictions that limited where Chinese families could buy property until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

At this point, it sounds like the fate of the building is still under conversation among particular involved actors. Not all congregations last forever and making decisions about what to do with their buildings can be difficult.

More broadly, there are many church buildings in the United States that are no longer used by a congregation. Some older structures find new life as a home for a different congregation and others are converted to new uses. In places where there is demand for land, such as in New York City, the end of a religious congregation may present an opportunity for a new owner to raze the building and construct something else. Some argue more religious buildings should be preserved as they are important parts of community life.

Additionally, Queens is an important site for religious activity, particularly in the post-1965 era when immigrants arrived in the community in larger numbers. For more, see the work of historian R. Scott Hanson on religious pluralism in Flushing, Queens.

I am struck in this case by the relatively recent construction of the church building. Historic preservation conversations about churches can often consider much older structures. This building is just over 50 years old but it is also socially significant. The church building in an alternative form – museum and cultural center – could serve as a reminder of the efforts of the religious congregation that once gathered there as well as its impacts.

The difficulties of defining religion, COVID-19 religious exemptions edition

With people seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the question of how to define religion arises.

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Exemption requests are testing the boundaries of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”

To the benefit of objectors like Holmes, the provision defines “religion” broadly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

They cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs. That means employers must try to distinguish between primarily political objections from people who may happen to be religious and objections that are actually religious at their core.

For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.

This would not be a surprise to sociologists of religion and others who analyze religion in the United States. On the one hand, American religiosity has formal patterns. There are established religious traditions, denominations, and congregations. Christianity has been a dominant religious form and so its beliefs and practices are widespread. The First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and no state religion have provided room for religious groups to develop and grow.

On the other hand, for at least a few decades, American religion has been marked by a willingness by many to decide what their own religion will be comprised of. This ranges from people who attend a congregation but do not necessarily agree with important doctrines or practices to those who create a highly individualized faith that draws on multiple traditions. From the “Sheilaism” of the 1980s discussed in Habits of the Heart to those today who would say they are spiritual but not religious,

This then means that a definition of religion is difficult. Is it as simply as saying that someone “would know religion when they see it?” If the law needs precision in order to make decisions, this definition and its interpretation will be very important to deciding who has a viable religious exemption and who does not.

Getting more suburban churches to develop affordable housing

As churches in cities develop affordable housing, how about more suburban churches doing the same? First, what some Atlanta churches are doing:

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The project is one of several in Atlanta where faith leaders are investing in affordable housing for the sake of their communities. Across the country, churches with property in prime locations are turning over one block, one building, one lot at a time through movements like “Yes in God’s Backyard” in California. Atlanta-area pastor Rev. David Lewicki discusses the calling of affordable housing as a ministry.

“We are increasingly convinced that affordable housing is the foundation of beloved community,” the Presbyterian minister wrote at Faith & Leadership. “Housing is a profound and even holy good.”…

Lewicki’s church got involved in lobbying for more inclusionary zoning policies to allow for lower-priced options in their area and began to create a land trust so they could get involved in addressing the legacy of racial and economic segregation in the city…

Affordable housing and community development can seem like just business ventures—which they are—but pastors know how much these issues directly affect their congregants and stem from biblical calls for community.

Here are a few compelling reasons why suburban churches should follow this course:

  1. Affordable housing is needed throughout metropolitan regions. For example, in the Chicago region, experts suggests there is a need for tens of thousands of units. And the need is not limited to Chicago or just specific communities; it is needed in many locations.
  2. Welcoming people goes beyond Sunday morning and indicating to people that they are wanted in the community all week round. It is one thing to be part of a church community; it is another to be fully welcomed into all of the community.
  3. Housing is critical in a suburban environment as it helps in access to jobs, schools, parks, and other amenities that lead to a higher quality of life. Plus, homeownership is highly valued in suburbs so if there are opportunities for congregations to provide affordable single-family homes, this helps attendees match suburban aspirations with reality.
  4. Suburban churches have funds and local power to make this happen. It takes money to buy, develop, and maintain properties. It takes expertise and influence to work with municipalities and concerned neighbors. Congregations are often viewed as assets in communities and they often have built up goodwill over the years.

While this may not be an easy task in many suburban locations as neighbors and communities resist providing housing for residents with fewer resources, religious congregations could help lead the way.

Facebook as the home for religious congregations?

Facebook is interested in partnering more with religious congregations and becoming the online home for their activity:

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Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups…

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it…

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams…

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

Doing church and religion online is well established and not going away. Yet, as the article notes, this raises a whole host of issues. Here are a few of my thoughts in response:

  1. I first noticed the importance of Facebook for multiple congregations when working with data based on congregational websites. Many congregations have websites, of varying degrees of sophistication and presentation, but not all. Some of those same congregations with websites also have Facebook pages and some without websites have Facebook pages. Do congregations really need both? Do they serve different audiences? The advantage of being on a social media platform is that people are already there (as opposed to searching for or typing in a website) and it offers the opportunity for interaction (usually not possible on a website).
  2. This makes sense from Facebook’s end as religious congregations tend to be durable social groups. If there are particular services Facebook can offer (such as helping congregations gather funds), they can gain a sizable market share of religious interaction and gathering.
  3. The religious people interviewed for the story suggested social media was really good for evangelism or reaching out to people. Yet, it is then easy to slip into a particular approach to people – see the conflation of “consumer” and “parishioner” above – and possibly difficult to transition from online interaction to embodied interaction. Worshiping online fits with many American religious features such as individualism and voluntary association but long-standing concerns about helping people move from an individualistic or response-to-evangelism faith to something deeper will continue in this model.
  4. I have lots of possible thoughts on how online religious gatherings function compared to meeting in a physical building shaped by the congregation. While my co-author and I did not address this directly in our book Building Faith, we argue buildings are very important for worship and fellowship.