Congregations remain a powerful shaper of American culture, but are they fostering civic responsibility? Approximately 300,000 congregations—churches, synagogues, mosques and temples—dot the American landscape. Of course, recent polling evidence suggests that more individuals than ever refuse to identify with any religious group (the “nones”). Despite this, more than 60% of Americans attended a religious service in the past year and one-quarter attended in any given week. As sociologist Mark Chaves notes, “Congregations remain the most significant social form of American religion.”
Congregations are faith-shapers, but also bear an ethical responsibility prepare the faithful for public life. According to Alexi de Tocqueville “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by its private citizens.” In the American context, the congregation (the word comes from the Latin word for “to gather an assembly”) shapes faithful citizens, for good or ill.
Unfortunately, civic engagement is on the decline in the US. Two decades ago, Robert Bellah’s study, Habits of the Heart described the resurgence of a powerful strain of American individualism that can drown out the values of community and the common good. The book quotes Brian Palmer, a 41 year old corporate manager, on his “value system.”
I guess I feel like everybody on this planet is entitled to have a little bit of space, and things that detract from other people’s space are kind of bad. One of the things. . .that makes California such a pleasant place to live, is people by and large aren’t bothered by other people’s value systems as long as they don’t infringe on your own. By and large, the rule of thumb here is that if you’ve got the money, honey, you can do your thing as long as your thing doesn’t destroy someone else’s property, or interrupt their sleep, or bother their privacy, then that’s fine. If you want to go in your house and smoke marijuana and shoot dope and get all screwed up, that’s your business, but don’t bring that out on the street, don’t expose my children to it, Just do your thing. That works out kind of neat.
Bellah and his team believe that individualism has become American’s first language, far stronger than its second language of community. Participating in a congregation might not only have strengthened Brian Palmer’s faith, but shaped him into a different, less self-centered type of citizen.
Congregations come in all different shapes and sizes. What follows is a tale of two congregations, or types of congregation, both Christian. Given the diversity of the American religious landscape, there are no doubt other ways that congregational life gets shaped. Here’s the question: Which of these congregations, in your opinion, does a better job of producing engaged citizens?
Tale # 1 “Full-Service 24/7 Sprawling Village”
In an article on the megachurch, The New York Times described a number of “super-sized” congregations, focusing on the amenities offered to its members.
- The Baptist Church in Plano, Texas has fifteen ball fields, a 7,000 seat sanctuary, a fifties style diner, a $19 million school, a coffee shop and a food court.
- Southeastern Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has 22,000 members and occupies 50,000 square feet. The church is designed to resemble a shopping mall, and offers “a full-service 24/7 sprawling village” where it is possible to eat, shop, go to school, bank, work out, scale a rock climbing wall and pray without leaving the grounds.
One critic states that, like a mall, this type of church offers “a universe where everything from temperature to theology is safely controlled.” According to Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist of religion, the mega-church blends together only people who are already very much like one another. “It’s the religious version of a gated community. . .“It’s an attempt to create a world where you’re dealing with like-minded people. You lose the dialogue with the larger culture.”
Tale # 2: “A Bunch of Troublemakers”
Oakhurst Presbyterian Church has a reputation in the Atlanta area for being involved in public life. One church member affectionately called the church “a bunch of troublemakers.”
Located in Decatur, Georgia, a town of 19,000 bordering the city, the church has been challenged by economic and cultural change in the neighborhood. Once a predominantly lower middle class community, Decatur has experienced gentrification as white professionals are moving in. One effect of this change has been the practice of “predatory lending” designed to foreclose property or collect abnormally high interest payments from the African American senior citizens who have always called Decatur home. Such predatory loans are marketed aggressively door to door, and church members grew concerned to see neighbors being driven out due to an inability to pay.
The church is not large (about 250 members), and not wealthy (they refer to the congregation as “economically challenged”). The congregation has put an emphasis on racial diversity (membership is 50% white and 50 % African American), managing to reflect the racial composition of the surrounding neighborhood.
Concerned about predatory lending, the congregation began lobbying to change state laws governing the practice. Yet church members grew impatient with the slowness of the legislative process, so a longtime member, who was ex-mayor and a City Council member, suggested a rummage sale to raise money. They asked a local merchant to lend its parking lot downtown and did more than usual amount of publicity. As a result, the sale netted $2,000, but more importantly, their success inspired people to donate their 2001 federal tax refunds to the effort. All told, they raised $10,000, and helped twenty of city’s neediest residents after less than a year.
What are we to make of these two tales? Congregations are faith-shapers, but which of these two does a better job of producing faithful citizens? Are there better examples?
 Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 55.
 Bellah et. al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 7.
 Patricia Lee Brown, “Megachurches as Minitowns,” New York Times, May 9, 2002.
A version of this description appears in Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions, 2011), 11. Linda-Marie Delloff, Public Offerings: Stories from the Front Lines of Community Ministry (Herdon, VA: Alban Institute,2002), 77-86.