By Bob Smietana
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Uncover the ways the Christian church has changed in recent years—from the decline of the mainline denominations to the mega-churchification of American culture—and a hopeful reimagining of what the church might look like going forward.
The United States is in the middle of an unprecedented spiritual, technological, demographic, political and social transformation—moving from an older, mostly white, mostly Protestant, religion-friendly society to a younger diverse, multiethnic, pluralistic culture, where no one faith group will have the advantage. At the same time, millions of Americans are abandoning organized religion altogether in favor of disorganized disbelief.
Reorganized Religion is an in-depth and critical look at why people are leaving American churches and what we lose as a society as it continues. But it also accepts the dismantling of what has come before and try to help readers reinvent the path forward. This book looks at the future of organized religion in America and outline the options facing churches and other faith groups. Will they retreat? Will they become irrelevant? Or will they find a new path forward?
Written by veteran religion reporter Bob Smietana, Reorganized Religion is a journalistic look at the state of the American church and its future. It draws on polling data, interviews with experts, and reporting on how faith communities old and new are coping with the changing religious landscape, along with personal stories about how faith is lived in everyday life. It also profiles faith communities and leaders who are finding interesting ways to reimagine what church might look like in the future and discuss various ways we can reinvent this organization so it survives and thrives. The book also reflects the hope that perhaps people of faith can learn to become, if not friends with the larger culture, then at least better neighbors.
“A superb examination of the future of Christian institutions…. A must-read for anyone invested in the fate of the American church.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A CHANGING WORLD
JOEY MALDONADO WAS out of his mind with joy.
For six months, he’d been sitting at home in his living room on Sunday mornings, hosting a small group livestream for worship services at the Movement Church, the start-up congregation he and his wife, Johanna Maldonado, lead on the southeast side of Nashville.
Just before Easter 2020—a crucial time for new churches like the Movement Church—Nashville’s mayor had issued a “safer at home” order, urging people to work from home, shuttering restaurant dining rooms and music venues, and asking Nashville residents to “social distance” by staying at least six feet apart. During a meeting with hundreds of clergy, the mayor also asked churches and other houses of worship to stop meeting in person.1 All of this was in hope of containing the spread of COVID-19, which by then had sickened close to nine hundred people and killed three dozen people.
Maldonado, whose congregation of about forty people included a few elderly members and at least one cancer patient, decided to move services online. It was the right thing to do. And besides, he had few choices.
For more than a year the congregation had been meeting at Plaza Mariachi, a retail and entertainment venue located on Nolensville Pike in a mostly Hispanic section of Nashville. The church met in the main hall of the plaza, where Maldonado led services with the worship band.
After services ended, church members would tear down the church set up and return the chairs they’d been sitting at to tables in the main hall. Then, in groups of four or five, the multiethnic congregation, made up of mostly of millennials, would often buy lunch at Tres Gauchos or one of the other restaurants at the plaza. While they ate and chatted, the worship music and hymns would be replaced by mariachi music from a live band, taking the same stage where Maldonado had just finished preaching. (He had to make sure the sermon wrapped up before noon, to give the band time to set up.)
COVID-19 had put a stop to all that.
Moving online was difficult for many churches, but it posed special challenges for the Movement Church. Unlike older, well-established congregations, whose members had worshipped together for years and decades and had a deep pool of relational and social capital to draw on, the folks at the Movement Church were still getting to know each other.
I’d discovered the congregation just before Christmas 2018 after a friend mentioned that he’d talked with Maldonado about the church’s search for a place to meet, one that culminated in their move to Plaza Mariachi, and I had been sitting in a back pew whenever I was in town.
Some full disclosure: I go to church for a living and, before COVID-19, would often visit congregations on the weekends while working on a story. In the early part of my career, I was also very involved in the life of a local congregation. But that involvement had fallen off after we’d moved to the Bible Belt, where churches were very different from those our family had attended farther north.
After visiting several, we’d settled in a megachurch in the Nashville suburbs, which had a campus near our house. Our kids went to the youth group, and my wife and I volunteered in the nursery, reading books to toddlers and changing diapers while their harried parents attended the service. For a while, things went well. We made friends, often sitting by our next-door neighbors, who also attended the church. Volunteering in the nursery was also rewarding, as there were no meetings or church politics to worry about.
A few months after we first showed up at the church, I made an appointment to talk with the senior pastor, a kind and sharp man who’d grown the congregation from an old-school downtown church to a sprawling megachurch with about five thousand members.
We chatted for a while, and then I got to the point.
“Please don’t do anything stupid,” I told the pastor. At the time I was the religion writer for the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville and had written more than a few stories about churches and pastors behaving badly. The last thing I wanted to see was this new church on the front page of the paper.
The pastor told me not to worry. The church was relatively healthy, and he planned on keeping it that way. For several years, he kept his word. We got involved in a small group, volunteered in the nursery, and became part of the community.
Then it all imploded.
The pastor and the church’s board got into a disagreement over a succession plan—not an uncommon experience, especially at larger congregations. Things got ugly, and the dispute between leaders eventually came to a head during a Sunday service. The pastor stepped down soon afterward, and the congregation was left angry and confused and unsure of the future. Eventually, the church merged with another church and was rebranded, and the community we had known essentially disappeared.
Almost everyone we knew was gone. And before long, so were we.
For about three years, we joined the millions of Americans who sleep in on Sundays rather than go to church. It is a growing crowd: less than half of Americans say they belong to a church or other house of worship, down from about 70 percent of Americans in the 1990s, according to the Gallup polling organization.2 That’s the lowest rate of congregational membership since the 1930s, when Gallup first began collecting data.
Gallup also tracks churchgoing and says that less than one-third of Americans, when asked, say they have gone to a worship service within the last week. Other studies pegged weekly attendance closer to a quarter of Americans. The General Social Survey, run by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, finds that about 24 percent of Americans say they attend services at least once a week. Another 4 percent say they are there most weeks. All told, just under half of Americans (43 percent) get to a service at least once a month, if not more.
Pew Research Center reported similar findings in 2021.3 Pew’s report divided Americans into two categories: the half who attended services at least once a month, and the other half who rarely or never show up. For several years, I was in the second category, at least on a personal basis. If I was not at work, I was not at church.
A quick aside: I should say a word here about religion and statistics about how religion is practiced in the United States, for the benefit of readers who don’t write about religion for a living. Federal law bars the Census Bureau from collecting this data about Americans. While we have a great deal of official government data about how old people are, their work, their marital status, where they live, how many kids they have, and a host of other important data points, we don’t have official data on religion.
Some denominations keep official data on their members, much of which is compiled in the US Religion Census Religious Congregations and Membership Study by a group of religion nerds known as the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. That study was last updated in 2010; the latest update was postponed by COVID-19, at least as of this writing.
There are other national studies as well, which we will talk about in the pages to come, based on survey data collected by places like Pew Research, the Public Religion Research Institute, the National Congregations Study by Mark Chaves at Duke, the Faith Communities Today study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and others like them.
The bottom line is that we know only what people tell us about their religious habits and practices. All the information is voluntary and gives us a good look at the big picture of religious trends. But the data has its limits—and it’s important to be aware of them.
Back to the story of the Movement Church, which by the time I arrived had been worshipping together for nearly two years. In the early days, most of the congregation was made up of Maldonado and a handful of friends who had decided to help launch the church. Much of the growth from that early handful of friends to a group of about fifty had come when the church moved from a downtown coffee house to Plaza in time for Easter 2019.
Those early days are crucial for a start-up church—or a church plant, as they are often known. These new churches often get support from a denomination or church planting network for a couple of years but soon have to build a self-sustaining congregation. Much of the Movement Church’s momentum was lost in those six months.
Still, the Movement Church persevered. Members had tuned in for the church’s livestream, and Maldonado and other leaders looked for creative ways to keep people engaged. Eventually, Maldonado had decided to adapt some of the lessons from COVID-19—especially a sermon that was more group discussion than monologue—for the relaunched worship services.
That week’s service was filled with joy and arm bumps and a sense that the congregation was back together and that brighter days were ahead. But not long afterward, COVID-19 began to rebound. The number of cases began to skyrocket, and before long, another lockdown was in place and the church went back online, waiting for a day when the pandemic would be over.
They would not meet again till Easter 2021.
All in all, the congregation had met together twice in person over thirteen months. Despite the lockdown, the Movement Church has not given up. A small group of leaders met every Sunday for a conversation about faith, at a social distance, and that service is streamed online. And the church has continued to be active in the community—something that had been a staple of the congregation’s life. One of the last things the church had done before the pandemic was to send out teams of volunteers to help clean up after a tornado hit Nashville in March 2020, and during the pandemic they continued to help their neighbors despite not being able to meet in person.
The Movement Church, in some ways, reflects the reality of American religion in 2021—where congregations still persist despite enormous challenges and an uncertain future. They persist in part because congregations offer two key benefits: a sense of community and belonging for those who are part of the church, offering reassurance that they are not alone, no matter what they face, and a sense of mission to rally around, which is devoted to helping their neighbors in their hour of need.
The church also reflects the face of religion in America, which has become increasingly diverse in recent decades. Most of the church’s leaders and about half the congregation are nonwhite and very young and are trying their best to build a long-term future while also facing the challenges of day-to-day survival during a time when organized religion seems on the edge of a precipice.
American religion is in a time of unprecedented transformation.
For most of its history, America has been a mostly white, mostly Christian nation, run mostly by men and where conservative Christian ideas about sex and marriage and money and morals ruled the day. Organized religion was a powerful and well-respected force, and other social institutions often deferred to religious leaders and gave Christians a place of honor and respect.
All that has changed. The country is rapidly becoming a multiethnic, pluralistic, egalitarian nation, where women and men are increasingly seen as equal, where traditional ideas about the nuclear family have been replaced by a more inclusive, LGBT-affirming view of sex and marriage, and where the fastest-growing religious group in the country are the so-called Nones—those who claim no religious affiliation.
More than one in four Americans is now a None, according to data from Pew Research, the General Social Survey, and other researchers. (The name None comes from surveys about religious affiliation, which include several faith categories—such as Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist, as well as “None of the above”—which has become an increasingly popular category.)
At the same time, according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, those who are religious are increasingly diverse. Among older Christians, for example, white believers outnumber believers of color by more than five to one. Among younger Americans, those two groups are essentially equal—forcing congregations and denominations to deal with issues of racial justice they had long avoided.
Many faith groups are becoming increasingly aware that business as usual is no longer working. The transition of power from mostly older white church members, whose donations have long paid the bills, to a younger, more diverse group of believers will be a rocky and complex project, especially as younger Christians—like Americans in general—deal with the church’s place in the country’s troubled racist past and continued racial division.
For some congregations, like St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, the changes in the broader religious landscape proved too much to overcome.
Founded in the 1960s, at a time when the nation’s then 3.4 million Episcopalians were at the height of their powers, St. Thomas was built in an up-and-coming neighborhood where the population was expected to boom. Church leaders expected the pews to be filled for years to come.
But the neighborhood’s growth faltered. While the church eventually had a healthy and faithful congregation, St. Thomas never fulfilled the hopes and dreams of its founders. When the neighborhood became more diverse, church members tried to reach out to their new neighbors, but nothing clicked, so as older members moved away or died, there were few newcomers to replace them. There were also internal disputes, some about the broader feuds in the denomination, especially over the ordination of Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop, and some over the disagreements that are common among any congregation.
Still, church members had a lively life together. A Facebook page dedicated to the church’s history is filled with images of pancake breakfasts, Thanksgiving meals, Christian celebrations, and a fall festival complete with barbecue, game nights, and giveaways from the church’s community garden. Requests for prayers, invitations to worship, and spiritual messages also motivate church members to persevere even in difficult times.
“We have been at this spiritual work for a long time now and we have no plans to stop,” read one message from a former Episcopal bishop of Alaska, posted to the page by a church member. “This is our time, our moment, and we intend to live it in justice and peace, no matter how long that may take.”
Eventually, however, the congregation grew smaller and older and could no longer afford a priest of their own. They limped along, but it was becoming clear to the church and their bishop, Brian Cole, who arrived in the Diocese of East Tennessee in 2017, after successful stints at several larger, thriving Southern congregations, that it couldn’t continue for long. That led to a series of delicate conversations, said Cole, a genial pastor and a marathoner, who was concerned about the spiritual welfare of St. Thomas’s congregation. The church had not had a regular pastor for years, and while fill-in clergy helped, it was not the same as having a pastor who knows their congregation well.
In some ways, Cole felt that the role of pastor at St. Thomas had fallen on his shoulders. The church, he felt, needed someone to sit with the congregation and help them think through the church’s future in a caring matter. They need a shepherd—not a denominational bureaucrat passing judgment on their future.
Cole knew he could not just walk in and tell the church it was time to close. Instead, he had a series of meetings with church leaders, asking them what they wanted to do with the church, as well as asking what kind of capacity St. Thomas members had for the future. There were also candid conversations about the reality that a handful of worshippers no longer had the resources to maintain a large church building. Church members also realized that although St. Thomas might not have a future, there were other churches nearby where they might be able to find a home. Those conversations led to a decision in the summer of 2020 to shut the church down.
During their meetings, church members told Cole something profound. He recalled them saying, “We know that we are not the only church that is going to be going through this. We want to do it well.”
COVID-19 made things challenging.
The initial meetings about closing the church were held in person, though everyone had to be masked and socially distanced. Having some kind of closing service—to mark the end of the congregation’s life together in prayer and worship—was essential, Cole and church members believed.
“We were not going to close a church over Zoom,” said Cole. A final service for St. Thomas was held on All Saints’ Day: November 1, 2020. The small congregation met outside, wearing masks and socially distanced, but still together. In their last days, the congregation had walked through their grief with the help of a retired priest and deacon, and that made the transition easier.
And at least one of their fears was alleviated along the way when the brick church building in North Knoxville was sold to the Amazing Church, a charismatic congregation made up mostly of African Christian immigrants to Tennessee. Before that sale, St. Thomas members had feared their church might end up as a microbrewery or be turned into apartments or used for another secular purpose. At least the mission of the church would live on, in a different form.
For Cole, the closing of St. Thomas was a moment of clarity. For most of his ministry, Cole had been involved with larger, thriving parishes; he rarely had been involved with congregations that were struggling. As bishop, however, closing churches would likely be part of his future, as the Episcopal Church—like many other denominations and faith traditions—faces an uncertain future.
“We are already in this reorganized religious landscape,” he said. “This is not something that will happen five years in the future. It’s already happening now.”
The story of St. Thomas reflects a larger story in American religion, namely that the world that Christian churches like St. Thomas—in particular Protestant congregations and denominations—were built to serve no longer exists and the assumptions that led to the creation of those churches and denominations no longer hold. We are living in the early days of what Pew Research has labeled “the Next America”—a new nation that differs substantially from its past in profound ways. The old America was mostly white and mostly Christian. The new America is diverse and pluralistic, and one of the largest and fastest-growing religious groups is the so-called Nones, who claim no religious identity.
A few data points: In 1960, about 89 percent of Americans—or about 158 million people—were white. Just over 10 percent (about 18 million people) were Black, with Americans from other ethnic backgrounds making up the remaining 1 percent (about 1.6 million people), according to data from the Census Bureau.4
By 2060, according to projections from the Census Bureau,5 only 43 percent of Americans will be white. Twenty-eight percent will be Hispanic, 15 percent will be Black, 9 percent will be Asian American, and 6 percent will come from two or more ethnic backgrounds. The country will have no demographic majority.
Among the oldest Americans, the so-called Silent Generation born between 1928 and 1945, 84 percent identify as Christians, while half go to church or attend worship services once a week or more, according to Pew Research data.6 Millennials, on the other hand, are far less likely to identify as Christian (49 percent) or go to church weekly (22 percent). More than one-third (40 percent) claim no religion.
In other words, America’s grandparents go to church; their grandkids do not. America’s grandparents are white and Christian; their grandkids are not. These two groups of older and younger Americans live in what are essentially different universes when it comes to race and religion, with different expectations of what the world should look like and who should be in charge.
During the heyday of the so-called Church Growth Movement, which fueled the rise of many of the nation’s largest Protestant megachurches, there was a phrase that was commonly used to promote this new, hip way of doing church: “We are not your grandmother’s church.” That phrase was splashed on billboards and repeated in best-selling books and promotional material for new churches across the country.
The idea was to highlight that these new churches had done away with all the stuffy conventions of the church’s past. No choirs in robes, no preachers in suits, no ancient hymns, and—God forbid—no pipe organs. Instead, these churches offer guitar-driven pop music, light shows, self-help sermons, and a form of Christianity meant to meet today’s generation where they are at. And many of them succeeded using this formula.
But the bigger picture facing churches is this: your grandmother is the one keeping churches alive. There’s your grandmothers’ church, and then there’s sleeping in on Sunday and eating avocado toast or going to a youth sports game or out to brunch or hanging out with friends. The habit of churchgoing as a socially prescribed requirement for a good life or a religious obligation is no longer embraced by most Americans, especially younger Americans.
St. Thomas belonged to the world of America’s grandparents. The church was born in the 1960s, during the glory of mainline Protestant denominations, whose membership rolls and pews had been filled by the baby boom that followed World War II. Churches from the so-called seven sisters of the mainline—Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Methodist, American Baptist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ—could be found in almost every city or town in the country and were a potent social, cultural, and political force.
“Mainline Protestants comprised over half of the population until the early 1960s, and together with Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists they accounted for upwards of 80 percent of Americans,” James Hudnut-Beumler, a historian of American religion from Vanderbilt University, told reporter and scholar Tara Isabella Burton at Vox.com in 2018.7 “These big-box denominations, if you will, accounted for a lot of cultural clout.”
The Episcopal Church itself had grown from just under two million members in 1930 to about 3.6 million by the mid-1960s, according to official church data,8 fueled largely by the baby boom. Other mainline denominations were experiencing similar membership booms. Together, those denominations formed the core of the religious, social, and cultural movement that Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington, DC–based think tank, refers to as “White Christian America.”
This predominantly white Protestant movement had shaped American culture from its earlier days—although America has no official state religion, white Protestantism had served as America’s civil religion in large part because the population was mostly Christian. While in the past those mainline churches and other Protestant groups had seen one another as rivals, in the 1950s they joined together through groups like the National Council of Churches, which was founded in 1950. Other organizations, like Spiritual Mobilization and the National Council for Christian Leadership, drew on leaders like Billy Graham, James Fifield of First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, and Daniel A. Poling of the Christian Herald, along with prominent business leaders, to promote the idea of America as “one nation under God.”
They did so, as Princeton historian Kevin Kruse points out, in part due to fear of communism and the labor movement in the United States. This movement helped propel Dwight Eisenhower to the White House, helped establish the National Prayer Breakfast, and got “under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Protestant churches during the mid-twentieth century were fueled by optimism about their future and the influence of the Christian message on the world around them and a belief that being part of a church was an essential part of a good life and a sign of American patriotism. They also assumed that people wanted to go to church—and so they competed to set up congregations in new communities where people were moving, assuming that if they built churches, the people would come.
These churches were also driven by fear of Catholicism.
In the mid-1940s, Harold Fey, a Disciples of Christ minister, wrote a series of articles for the Christian Century, an influential mainline publication, titled “Can Catholicism Win America?” The answer, Fey argued, was yes. And that yes meant dire troubles for America.
Fey believed the United States had erred by allowing large numbers of Catholic immigrants into the county. Those Catholics were under the control of the pope, who would soon be able to control American culture if Protestants did not act to stop him.
About a decade after Fey’s articles ran, C. Stanley Lowell, an associate director of Protestants and Other Americans United—known today as Americans United for Separation of Church and State—made a similar argument in a 1958 Christianity Today cover story about the dangers of Catholicism.9 He feared that Catholic theology would soon take over all aspects of American life: what children learned in schools, who would be allowed to get married, and what kinds of worship would be allowed in the United States.
He summed up the threat this way: “Why should the Roman church run the risk of competition when it has the power to eliminate it?”
This animosity toward Catholics seems so foreign today. Evangelical Christians sang hallelujahs after former president Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett as an associate justice to the United States. Barrett joined five fellow Catholics on the high court and one Protestant—associate justice Neil Gorsuch, who was raised Catholic. On the day that Barrett was nominated, J. D. Greear, then president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was in the Senate offering an opening prayer. And when Barrett was sworn in, a host of evangelical leaders—including Franklin Graham, California pastor Greg Laurie, Texas pastor and former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council—were there.
That past animosity reflects a reality of mid-twentieth-century America, when church leaders competed for the souls of the country’s citizens. They assumed that Americans would go to church. They assumed that religious institutions would shape the country’s culture, laws, and civic life. They assumed their churches would have long and healthy futures.
- "Disruption describes our times, and the church is not immune. Most of us can't recall in our lifetime a season with more disruption in the local church than now. How did we get here? Where do we go from here? These are questions I am asked constantly. Reporter Bob Smietana helps us with this important book. He describes the issues facing the church today with the precision of a journalist yet without trying to advocate for an outcome. If you want to understand how we got to the place we are and gain valuable information on how to move forward, you will want to read this book."—Ed Stetzer, Wheaton College
- “Religion in the United States is changing dramatically, and veteran religion reporter Bob Smietana skillfully helps us navigate how we got here—and where we are headed. Using interviews, research data and other journalistic tools, he shows us how communities are dealing with America's reshaped religious landscape. Through a reporter's lens, he takes us on an illuminating journey to show us in detail how people of faith are finding new ways to imagine what religion can look like in a more diverse, pluralistic culture.”—Sarah Pulliam Bailey, religion reporter for the Washington Post
- “Telling rich stories about people and communities across a vast religious spectrum, Smietana delivers his insights on reimagining American Christianity and organized religion more broadly.”—Library Journal
- "What’s clear—from Smietana’s perspective—is that previous versions of church, especially 'white' church, won’t serve what Pew Research calls the increasingly diverse and pluralistic 'next America'"—The Gospel Coalition
"Bob Smietana is one of the most well-respected journalists covering American religion. That reputation comes from decades of steady, unbiased, and truthful reporting about the subject that he loves. That passion and skill comes through clearly in Reorganized Religion. Drawing on his extensive networks of scholars, activists, and faith practitioners, this book stands a testament to where religion is and where it will be in the near future. This book serves as an authoritative work on the economic, political, social, and spiritual implications when churches close their doors across the United States."
—Ryan Burge, professor of political science, author of The Nones
- On Sale
- Aug 29, 2023
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Worthy Books