Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Growing Church Lessons from Rodney Stark's Work

Okay, Sociologist of Religion Professor and best selling author Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity, One True God, For the Glory of God, The Victory of Reason, Cities of God, The Churching of America, 1776-2005) may at times be hard to take for religious progressives--especially process theologians. But I love his work and approach, if often not his delivery, especially as his work progresses it seems to take on a beleaugered, me against the world of academia spirit. Theologians and biblical scholars may find things to wince at from time to time (I do), but when he sticks to sociology and the lens of market forces applied to religious committment, he strikes me as dead-on. And his look at the world of the early church movement is particularly helpful for anyone planting churches in this century.

1. First, a general comment. In the Churching of America, he shows how America went not from a very church-going world in the colonial era to a non-church-going world today, but the reverse; what happened was that the main churches of the colonial era, namely congregationalism, and other "mainline" have shown a steady decline of market share throughout the history of the U.S., but "newer" churches and sects have more than made up for that decline. Now, put this up next to Barna's research that shows an ever-growing gulf between Christian church connection and attendance and especially committment and our U.S. society today. Are Stark and Barna mutually exclusive? No. Stark is looking with a broad brush stroke, and Barna is increasingly looking at how there is a difference between people who say they go to church, who go to church, who are committed to their faith, and eventually are dedicated to their faith, and he is interested in drawing distinctions between born-again evangelicals and other evangelicals for example. So yes more people in the market share are expressing a "connection" to church than were doing so in the colonial era and afterwards (Stark); but yes, ala Barna, that means less and less these days. And it is clear that the colonial era and its aftermath was at least a dominant church culture per se, compared to the dominance of secular and competitive choice culture today.

But for planters and those interested in growing their churches, Stark's works point to these factors.
2.
You have to have a focus that provides "here and now" rewards, of community, of belief, that cannot be obtained elsewhere. This is not to dismiss the "otherworldliness of focus on a life hereafter" for in Rise of Christianity he shows how that core belief sustained the early followers of Jesus, but it was enacted in the here and now of caring for one another. So how do you focus on forming relationships that will be like fictive families, places of healing and mission?
3.
Those that grow have a focused theological exclusiveness. Monotheism grows; polytheism won't. The more pluralism there is within a plant the more difficulty there will be in obtaining the committment needed. There seems to be a reverse dynamic at work. Stark shows how a church needs a high-tension with the surrounding culture in order to grow, but not too high tension that makes it too hard and turns people away (why else would people come and expend their personal capital if they could easily get same thing elsewhere?); but if there is internal high-tension it leads to watering down the focus and mission in order to accomodate everyone. Also, high demands on membership, coupled with great rewards, will equal growth. Question: how are people being rewarded, what are they being offered, for their transaction of capital and committment? If they are able to connect with an active God who will be on their side in times of need they are more likely to commit to the church of that God than with a God who is not active in lives and the world (remember what I said about the process theologians and church?). I think you can turn this into a positive but you have to acknowledge it exists.

About high tension with surrounding culture; here is one place Stark missteps. He says that mainline theologies, ala new understandings of doctrines, show a low tension with surrounding culture, and those that keep to the old doctrinal ways in the midst of the changing culture result in having high-tension churches. But at least in the minds of many, even in highly unchurched areas, and certainly in places where evangelical churches have been rising in stature in the past decades, the culture equates Christianity with the old doctrine and dogma; that's why the post-evangelicals and emergents are finding success as they respond in a different way, especially among the young. So to be high-tension with one's surrounding community may in fact be to hold to the new understandings of theological questions, and it is this progressive tension with a conservative culture that can create high committment. Now, is there something inherent in progressive theology that prevents it from engendering committment--that is, in short, if you do away with hell is there any reason for people to expend their religious capital? especially if you also do away with heaven?--that is a better question. In the short run, I think the answer is unfortunately yes. Can we get people to re-see hell in a new light, very much true in a here-and-now way, as a motivator? The rise of twelve step groups point to the possibility, but then we would have to see our mission in something of a similar healing fashion that would break through the walls of our healthy-mindedness.
4.
The biggie: churches grow by forming and using social networks, extended fields of family and friends. Know these, track these, connect with these.
5.
Show discontinuity and continuity with their religious background and surrounding churches. How does the church plant offer something different but not too different?
6.
You can grow organically, exponentially. 3.4 percent annual took the early Christians from marginal to dominant status over 300 years. Help people have a 300 year focus; our three and five year strategic plans just build in anxiety and short-sightedness and do more harm than good.
7.
Emotionalism over rationalism.
8.
Importance of focusing on urban areas, places of great stress and great change.
9.
Are there receptive groups waiting for your plant and what you have to offer? What has gone before? In Cities of God, he talks about how both Judaism's strands and various Pagan strands left a receptive culture for the message of the early church.
10.
Diversified leaders are crucial. Latest work shows how Paul by himself wasn't that influential; he reveals a lens on the work of so many others. Also being multicultural, including women as leaders. Broader look: who has been cast out by your culture and area, and how can your plant community offer them ministry and leadership opportunities? as Paul and early leaders did with women and others.
11. Stark talks about how rise of Christian communities came about through connecting with people who weren't the poorest, but who had standing and some wealth, and who could put their resources to use and connect with the ones without power in the society. See Neil Cole for how church plants thrive most in poorest, hardest areas where it is very visible who is desperate for life change--find ways to connect those with health and wealth with those who don't. Plants that focus on one or the other may limit themselves.
12
People who have lots of religous capital are less likely to be drawn to a new plant or movement than those with little religious capital. So focus on those de-churched, unchurched. Even moreso than I am thinking of the boomer seeker who may actually have his or her religous capital bound up in their very seeking self.
13
Stark talks about the importance of the "port cities" and the highly Hellenized cities as places where growth happened the most. What is our corrolary today? Where are the portals? The web? the fall through the crack places of a city? The coffeehouses? The apartment complexes? You can't go everywhere; you have to pick where you focus planting efforts. Where are the places of spiritual weakness that will offer an opening to your spiritual strength?
14
Focus on the family. Recent studies have show that birth rate factors are key in which religious communities grow and have more market share and which ones don't; mainlines don't have big families; others do. There is even focus on having bigger families in more conservative evangelical families and in the newer movements within those worlds--home school, home church, home business, etc. Maybe progressive families won't be able to look at having bigger families, through biological means, concerned about population growth and quality of life issues, but the issues of sacrifice are key here. What are we willing to commit to in terms beyond our own individualism? Adoption? Building bigger fictive families and more intentional connections with others? Even more home-religious schooling or families connecting beyond sending kids to one hour a week at "church"? Even focusing on the health of families. making this key to the being of the church. And with recent studies out from the Hartford Institute, you might narrow it down by putting a more concentrated effort into focusing on men and their spiritual needs and connecting with them. They say the more men are involved in a church, the more it grows. I think that is because men then provide a full family link, which brings more health into the system, than with the church being home to a split family, with only part of the family being involved. Committment would then go up, and so would growth, as well as a pool of resource and additional field of family and friends.

I would urge all folks interested in growth to be familiar with Stark's works. Unpleasant truths sometimes. And I think Martin Marty is right (Stark quotes him in his latest book Cities of God as opposing him on these grounds) that Stark's work is more geared to usefulness than to truth, but then he is a sociologist and not a theologian or biblical scholar or historian for that matter, though his work helps shed light in all these areas. I don't have to agree with the kind of image of God he shows leads to church growth to understand that what he has shown is valid; it just shows the work ahead to be done.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why do Evangelics have all the best;

Churches
Services
Tunes
Communities
????

and some of the worse most backward theological positions?

Heck beck we need to learn from the Evangelicals. Liberal Christianity seems to be about writing dense essays. It needs to balance the cerebal with the heart and with atomised people's wish for community and joy and a taste of the infinite! I know there is a liberal Alpha course out there somewhere but where? ( I know the answer I am not being literal!! just like the bible?)

May I just add that liberal christians bore the pants off me and I am one. lets get it on before we are swept aside!

peace and love

David

Ron said...

Thanks David. Of course, if you listen to evangelicals or the new post-evangelicals maybe, they don't really have all the best churches, services, etc. which is precisely why you have so much critical re-thinking and re-incarnating going on in that world today. And it is interesting to begin to see their acknowledgment of a need for more engaging theological positions anyway conversant with the emeerging post-christian culture. The difference though? I think it is the Christology, the at heart belief in the revealing of God through a particular person, in a particular time, and in a particular culture--as opposed to a system of thought (at its worse that is what evangelical world used to project, belief over be-living as revealed by Jesus). But their basic leap of faith and focus on the person of Christ, not just the works thereof to use a theological term, means that they have a stake in the particular manifestations of Jesus, and how we are be true or not to his spirit. I may disagree with them about what that spirit is, I do, but the focus is right and it leads them to be concerned with matters that liberals and such too often do not. It isn't inherent in liberal theology though, I believe, not really, but we have allowed too many theological idols in liberalism to take the place of the focus on the particular, the personal. At least these are my current thoughts written in the midst of a retreat.

about boredom? and being swept aside? oh yeah. preach it! Ron

James Hilden-Minton said...

Hi Ron,

My basic concern about liberal Christianity has been its low level of spiritual engagement.

I am a member of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, GA. (You may have caught the news about our Pastor Schmeling.) This is an urban church now growing after decline in the '80s.

The renewal seems to be driven by a focus on fostering spiritual practice among member and revitalizing worship. The worship is strongly liturgical, but there is creativity, energy and vitality to it. (They even use my songs from time to time.) One can see this just observing how congregants participate in the liturgy.

This is a congregation on the edge with both the larger society and the denomination. Our pastor is the defendant in a church trial regarding how being a partnered gay man make him unfit for ministry. Our congregation strongly supports our pastor and loves him dearly. Facing this issue has been a strongly bonding experience for the congregation.

I think this goes a long way in demonstrating that progressive churches can be on the social edge and trive there. We can also make strong use of tradition, liturgical forms of worship.

Framing liturgical worship in part as spirit practice helps. It is about being present with our God and each other.

The idea that worship needs to be made "contempory" in style or even "emotional", I believe, is wrong. Rather worship needs to be energized by the Spirit's work within the congregation.

To do my part on this front of spiritual renewal for just Christianity, I have started my own blow where I am presenting my music, AfterMyOwnHeart.blogspot.com.


Blessings to you,

James


PS. Evangelicals are in even deeper need for genuine spiritual renewal with a prophetic calling.

Ron said...

Hi James. Good to hear an update from you.
If you haven't read Diane Butler Bass' book which I have blogged about here--Christianity For the Rest of us--then I think you will like it and it will resonate with your comments.
Liturgy is such a powerful draw to younger generations especially, and I think for existing churches a focus on it, and multiplying its forms, and taking it out of the church building space, is so crucial to transformation in the church and people's lives.
For church planting it seems a little different. It is best when applied deeply to people already committed to being leaders, the inner core, as it celebrates relationships between them and cast those relationships in light of our relationship with God. I have wondered if you could start a plant that was heavy on liturgy from the start; in some micro-cultures maybe, but I think it would best begin as artspace, musicspace, and then evolved into religious liturgy. What do you think?
I am thinking that one of my growing edges in my church plant is to back away from the liturgy as we have been settling into in our small first group which is then hard to apply art and music on top of, and see how we can begin with icon and art and music and somehow organically grow liturgy and eucharist out of those engagements with the art.
But as in so many things it begins with the actual particular people you have--where they are and their passions. Here it seems the focus has been more on hands-on service and liturgy helps to lift that up to God and worship provides us energy for it. But I am yearning--particular after reading Leonard Sweet's new book The gospel according to starbucks--to find ways to be more intentional about beauty in liturgy.
Anyway thanks for prompting more ramblings
And yes, I think the whole emergent church movement has been propelled by the growing awareness among evangelicals for more authentic and deeper spiritual experiences than that which was received in the megachurch boomer orientation of the 80s and 90s.
About "emotionalism": I think it has to be there, but we might have our containers for it in different ways than the pentecostal for example; liturgy at its best for me reveals the emotional self, the emotional bonds with others and with the emotiveness of God.

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