It’s become almost a church growth law that strong, “strict” congregations will grow the fastest in the future.
But in an article in the Christian Century (Aug. 26-Sept. 2), sociologist Peter Berger calls that paradigm into question as he sees congregations increasingly improvising to minister to Americans who have lost much of the old certainties regarding religious belief. Berger argues that certainty about traditional religious truth claims and authority is primarily challenged by the growing religious and cultural pluralism of American society.
In particular, the certainty based on the authority of an institution, such as found in Roman Catholicism, has been challenged by revisionist historical studies. Those who base their certainty on a religious text, such as the evangelicals, have been challenged by biblical criticism. Another kind of certainty based on religious experience, as found among the charismatics, has been weakened by new insights in psychology and the sociology of knowledge.
Berger acknowledges that the congregations attempting to minister to today’s uncertain believers by emphasizing faith more than any type of certainty are likely to be “weaker” and more provisional than more dogmatic faiths, but they can survive and even thrive. He cites the research of Nancy Ammerman, Robert Wuthnow and European sociologists who find signs of vitality in a segment of mainline Protestant churches (which may be evidenced in the more recent stable mainline membership patterns), as well as the continuing growth of Unitarian-Universalism.
Even in supposedly secular Europe, a loosely organized and lively “do-it-yourself” Christian movement exists, often missed by sociologists since it may be expressed outside of established churches. Berger sees the new mood of religious uncertainty as creating a new mission field for mainline Protestantism.
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