01: Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way (Rutgers University Press, $20) by Kimon Howland Sargeant, is one of the first sociological treatments of the megachurch-seeker service phenomenon.
Sargeant focuses on the congregations and work of the Willow Creek Association (WCA), the seeker church organization started by the pioneer megachurch Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. Based on surveys of pastors connected to WCA using seeker sensitive worship — services that use contemporary forms of music and other elements that are seen as culturally relevant — he finds that such congregations do not attract their target audience of the unchurched, non-believing seekers as much as Christians with loose institutional ties.
Some of Sargeant’s other findings might be expected; both the pastors and congregants see little value in traditional denominational doctrine and identity. He finds that the longer seeker-based churches and pastors are involved with Willow Creek, the less denominational attachments they have, even as the WCA takes on the traits of a “postmodern” decentralized denomination.
Sargeant concludes that the blend of innovation and evangelical content will give these churches a place in the future but at the same time makes them vulnerabe to the whims of a feelings-based, therapeutic culture.
02: While there are renewal groups in every mainline Protestant denomination, the diversity and number of these conservative caucuses and fellowships pressing for evangelical renewal in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is unique.
The new book A Moment to Decide (Institute for Democracy Studies, 177 E. 87th St., New York, NY 10128, $25), by Lewis C. Daly, looks at evangelical Presbyterian renewal and reform efforts from a strong left-of-center perspective. Yet the fact that the book has been published in response to the “threat” of these groups attests to their influence in mainline Presbyterianism.
The book provides interesting detailed histories and profiles of such renewal groups as the Presbyterian Lay Committee, the Presbyterian Coalition, Presbyterians for Renewal, and the Presbyterian Forum and finds that social and political issues figure highly in their work; several of their leaders are involved in New Right-Republican political causes. The study tends to view any conservative association and activity by these groups (from pro-life activism’s to missions) as a distinct pattern of “right wing mobilization against democratic pluralism and social justice in the United States.”
Readers may also question the book’s tendency to view even moderate renewal efforts (the book does a better job at pointing out the differences in strategy and emphasis among these groups) as providing “mainstream political cover for extreme political goals.” The institute plans to issue similar studies on the influential renewal movements in the United Methodist and Episcopal churches.
03: A different perspective on evangelicals and their political impact is found in the book Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want (University of California Press, $27.50) by Christian Smith.
He eschews focusing on the pronouncements and politics of Christian right leaders and opinion polls and instead turns to in-depth interviews with evangelicals to gauge the strength and diversity of the movement. The University of North Carolina sociologist looks at how evangelicals are divided among an array of subgroups and traditions that do not lend themselves to monolithic social or theological positions. For instance on political involvement, most evangelical interviewees showed themselves divided between acknowledging the importance of political involvement while opposing the use of government coercion to achieve Christian-based measures.
The same ambivalence was found on matters of education and gender issues; respondents blended equality themes with those of headship (the spiritual leadership of husbands in marriage), especially when it comes to women’s roles outside the home.