“Postdenominationalism” has become a popular term for describing the religious situation today.
Polls and other studies have shown that Americans, especially the younger generations, no longer have deep loyalty to denominations, as shown in the many who have switched churches or find their spirituality outside of institutions and “brand name” religions. Yet recent research suggests that congregations still value the connections and resources that national and international religious bodies provide. Scholars at the early November conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Montreal presented evidence that denominations will be with us for the foreseeable future, even if they are decentralized and take less familiar forms.
A new nationwide General Social Survey of Religious Congregations, headed by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona, found that denominations still hold an important role in most congregations. In the survey of 1,240 congregations (in which 19 percent claim no affiliation), it was found that 80 percent regularly give funds to their denominations. Sixty three percent of congregations had denominational representatives speaking at services. Whether a denomination was strongly centralized or not was not significant in determining a close relationship with congregations. The degree of closeness has not changed among congregations in the last decade, except in the Assemblies of God, where the relationship has become more distant.
Another paper presented at the conference by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby surveyed congregation leaders from 29 Protestant denominations and found that most still rely on their denominational publisher for resources. The congregations wanting a denominational emphasis in their literature spanned the spectrum, such as the conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans (89 percent), Nazarenes (82 percent) and the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (79 percent) and United Methodist Church (73 percent).
Yet most congregations wanted “some” emphasis on denomination rather than viewing denomination as highly important. Bibby adds that “A number [of respondents] suggested that what the data reflect is the fact that many people . . . do not especially value their formal denominations as such. However, they do value various theological, historical, and cultural components of their denomination — beliefs, distinctives, ways of expressing faith.”
Gen. Xers and younger baby boomers, long considered the most institutionally disenchanted of generations, even show a high level of denominational attachment, at least when it comes to Roman Catholicism. Researchers Dean Hoge, William Dinges, Mary Johnson and Juan Gonzalez surveyed 800 Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics, age 20 to 39, and found nine in 10 who were confirmed have kept the faith of their youth.
Three in four of respondents say they could not imagine belonging to any other church. In a report on the study in the National Catholic Reporter (Nov. 20), Dean Hoge is quoted as saying that “I went into this study . . . with the idea that the Catholic scene is going to replay the mainline scene [of denominational identity declining]. It took me by surprise.”
(National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)