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It’s the Numbers, Stupid

July 25, 2008

A couple of days ago, I was a part of a focus group of pastor-type people. It is for a study of so-called emerging adults being done by some researchers at Marymount University (and with hopeful funding from the Lily Endowment). They’re interested in the broad disinterest in church evidenced by Americans in their twenties.

Though I was nervous about the overwhelming presence of a local celebrity pastor, he apparently passed on the meeting and left it to us small-timers. Who enjoyed a wonderful time of free-ranging discussion between we 5 practitioners and 3 sociologists from around the country talking about church and culture. From where I was sitting, it was a helpful time of challenging assumptions and generalizations and misconceptions. Of talking about inclusion vs. hierarchy, of creativity vs. corporatization, of listening vs. proclaiming, of practice vs. doctrine, of conversation vs. dogma, of personal vs. mega. It was also a chance to see walls come down: at one point, one of the pastors asserted, “I don’t know what people mean by ‘emergent’, but I know I’m not!” Five minutes later, he laughed, “Maybe I am emergent…” Overall, it was an extended opportunity to suggest that the ‘problem’– if there is one– is due to the general tendency of churches to decline significant input from the people who they’re trying to ‘reach’.

We were breathing this rich air of understanding, nuance, and collective wisdom when the final question was presented: “So which churches should we study?”. I could practically hear the air leave the room as the suggestions were– almost exclusively– mega-churches promoting attractional models of what is essentially the same kind of church and Christianity that has been in existence for several hundred years. Now granted, sociology without numbers is merely speculation, so these researchers shouldn’t be blamed for heading toward the crowds. But if we keep doing the same thing we’ve always done, how can we expect to get different results? More importantly, how will those who see things differently ever find a place, an affirmation of their insight, a voice, and a community?

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4 Responses to “It’s the Numbers, Stupid”

  1. John says:


    I think that there may be some confusion on the part of both yourself, your fellow ministers, and the sociologists.

    1. First, I think that there is a lack of appreciation as to the difference between mainline, independent, and emergent churches. Many of the traditional mainline churches do in fact seem to be graying and/or losing members.

    2. Megachurches, on the other hand, are not. Part of this would appear to be because they have abandoned the “franchise/establishmentarian” model and embraced a “charismatic leader/independent entrepreneurial” model instead. Note, however, that this is not a new model; often in both the American past and present a charismatic revivalist parachurch movement has become denominational over time.

    3. Just because a revivalist megachurch–past or present–is populist in appeal, does NOT mean that it will be democratic in nature. This was demonstrated brilliantly in Nathan Hatch’s book _The Democratization of American Christianity_. As I recall, Hatch found that populist religious movements were often extremely heirarchical in organization.

    4. I think that a lot of people think that emergent/postmodern Christianity is the “new wave” of populist youth revivalism that will become the “new hot thing Real Soon.” I think that this may be incorrect. As far as I can see, Emergent Christianity is an intellectual and artistic movement in which people are rebelling against both the hum-drum and boring graying mainline, and also the heirarchical megachurch. However, this does not mean that the movement is, or will ever be, organized and coherent enough to generate the sort of mass movement to be commercially successful. As we have seen in our own emergent church, if you ask 15 people what one should do about something, in an emergent church about 10 answers will come back–followed by weeks of meetings to disuss the pro’s and cons of each side, and to try to get to the heart of what we are “really” talking about anyway. This introspection and skepticism is not the stuff that mass movements and megachurches are made of.

    5. So… it is very possible that the works that come out of the emergent movement could be quite influential, in the same way that, say, C.S. Lewis was, and is, influencial. However I doubt that we will ever see an earth-shattering emergent Christian movement any more than we will ever see a C.S. Lewis revivalist society or denomination.


  2. Hey, John, thanks for your feedback (it’s great to have a real sociologist weighing in, especially one who *never* reads blogs ;-)

    I’m sorry if I gave the impression that the focus group was about ‘emergent/emerging church’. It wasn’t, and I wasn’t promoting that form of church, either. It was only one question that came up, and what I shared there was much more about the broad trends that I see in postmodern culture, and the way that some churches are trying to pay attention to that.

    And I think we agree: the church that is emerging will not become a dominant model of church, by definition. On the other hand, to the degree that it reflects broader trends in academic disciplines and organizational models (the wider trend of ‘emergence’), it will find affinity with those of like worldview.

    I guess I was only hoping that these academics would pay some attention to the more minor blips on the sociological map. But if they do, then we won’t have our quiet corner to play in, will we? ;-)

  3. John says:

    Yes, I agree that the article and study are about “emerging adults,” not “emergent Christians.” This, however, leads to a very interesting question. You ask in your post:

    “But if we keep doing the same thing we’ve always done, how can we expect to get different results? More importantly, how will those who see things differently ever find a place, an affirmation of their insight, a voice, and a community?”

    As you point out, if we are a fairly free society, and people are going to megachurches, and especially are *paying to support the megachurches*, on what grounds can we really ask why people would/should *want* different results?

    Furthermore, as a former sociologist/historian, I would have to ask you to ask this rather uncomfortable question: what do people want in a church, anyway? It is easy to pile on pious-sounding answers, like “People want an encounter with the Ultimate Numenous Ground of Being, using this as a grounds for social critique.” Certainly this is true… at least around a few holidays and at funerals.

    However, I would argue that for most of us, most of the time, since before people built the ziggurats of Ur, it provides for fellowship and mutual aid for like-minded individuals of similar social class and background, and a way to inculcate our youth with the values that we would like to believe that we hold as both individuals and as a society. And it also serves as a way to symbolically affirm that our vision of the social and moral order is divinely approved, as opposed to “those guys over there” who do things differently… and are thus clearly not as well integrated into the Divine Plan as we are.

    PS: I read the blog because of your fortunate accident emailing the initial post to me! :-)

  4. Hey, John, don’t sell yourself short– as far as I’m concerned, you’re like a Marine: once a sociologist/historian, always a sociologist/historian.

    Sorry if I gave the impression that I’m *against* people attending mega-churches, mainlines, or any other. More power to ‘em. And if they like it there, of course they should support them, financially and otherwise. In fact, that’s just what I’m after– a place for everyone to do their form of church in the way that makes sense to them. So what about people like us, who value mystery and creativity and discussion and disagreement instead of the mass-production that is served up at the more popular alternatives? Can’t our academic leaders shine the light on some alternative models?

    I guess I’m asking that the dominant models become a little less, well, dominant. Call me crazy.

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