The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-first Century

The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-first Century

by Stephen Ellingson

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Religious traditions provide the stories and rituals that define the core values of church members. Yet modern life in America can make those customs seem undesirable, even impractical. As a result, many congregations refashion church traditions so they may remain powerful and salient. How do these transformations occur? How do clergy and worshipers negotiate which aspects should be preserved or discarded?

Focusing on the innovations of several mainline Protestant churches in the San Francisco Bay Area, Stephen Ellingson’s The Megachurch and the Mainline provides new understandings of the transformation of spiritual traditions. For Ellingson, these particular congregations typify a new type of Lutheranism—one which combines the evangelical approaches that are embodied in the growing legion of megachurches with American society’s emphasis on pragmatism and consumerism. Here Ellingson provides vivid descriptions of congregations as they sacrifice hymns in favor of rock music and scrap traditional white robes and stoles for Hawaiian shirts, while also making readers aware of the long history of similar attempts to Americanize the Lutheran tradition.

This is an important examination of a religion in flux—one that speaks to the growing popularity of evangelicalism in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226204925
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 593 KB

About the Author

Stephen Ellingson is assistant professor of sociology at Hamilton College. He is a coeditor of The Sexual Organization of the City, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-20490-1


IT WAS A WARM and sunny afternoon as I pulled into the parking lot of Zion Lutheran Church in the heart of Silicon Valley. I came to attend the installation of the congregation's new associate pastor. As I walked from the parking lot behind the church to the front entrance, I heard the rock-and-roll band playing loudly and I could smell the fatted pig being barbequed. As I rounded the corner, I saw the band setup on the front lawn in front of two or three hundred folding chairs under a large tent. I had just sat down near the back when Tom, a member I had met recently at the church's twelve-step Bible study, invited me to join him and his wife, and soon I found myself in the front row. The outdoor sanctuary filled up quickly as it neared the five o'clock starting time, and then the band launched into a set of simple "praise music" songs; the only one I recognized was an upbeat, jazzy rendition of the classic hymn "Joyful, Joyful We Adore You." Several clergy walked through the band and sat down on chairs in front of the band; all were wearing brightly colored Hawaiian shirts. The senior pastor of Zion welcomed everyone to the service and invited us all to the postservice luau. The service continued with another praise song led by the rock band, and then one of the pastors read two passages from the New Testament.

Then came the main event: several of the visiting clergy delivered three- to four-minute sermons on the question that the new pastor had posed to them some weeks before, "What keeps you going?" The first pastor spoke about the days when he is overwhelmed by the job-too many deaths and illnesses, too many meetings, not enough time or compassion to deal with it all. "When I want to quit I turn to the Living Word. Hear the word of the prophet Isaiah, 'The grass fades, the flowers wither, but the word of our God will stand forever.'" He gave a brief excursus on the centrality of daily Bible study for successful ministry and concluded with the following sage advice: "More oft en than not I am driven to my knees by the demands of being a pastor. Ministry is about living with bruised knees, and scripture is the one thing that is constant; it is what I turn to when God drives me to my knees."

A second pastor rose and began with a serious look on his face, "What keeps me going as a pastor? The minister's edition of The Lutheran Book of Worship? [long pause] No, that won't help." His opening lines were met with peals of laughter, but then he turned serious. He held up his leather-bound, floppy Bible, gestured with it, and solemnly said, "This is what I turn to when things get bad." He read a passage from the Old Testament book of Micah and instructed his junior colleague that the Bible contains everything we need to know about being disciples.

A third pastor finished the sermon time by reading two passages from works by the patron saints of orthodoxy and contemporary evangelicalism, C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald. In the story from MacDonald, God is likened to a master carpenter whom we invite to make some modest repairs on our house. Once inside, God starts doing repairs-unclogging drains, fixing the leaking roof. But then, like some contractor run amok, God starts the major renovations-tearing out walls, building turrets and new rooms. The pastor wryly noted that "we just want to live in a small cottage, but God wants to build a palace in order to live there with you. I keep going after thirty years of ministry because I want to find out what God will do with me and all the other Christians in my life."

The service rapidly concluded with the laying on of hands and praying for the new pastor, another up-tempo praise song, and then the youth group ambushed their new pastor and dressed him in all things Hawaiian-grass skirt, coconut-shell bra, straw hat. As they did so, the chairperson of the call committee informed us that the Hawaiian theme not only was good fun but had a serious side. He continued by regaling us with the story of how the Hawaiian shirt was created. Apparently, Western missionaries were so appalled at the nakedness of the native islanders when they arrived to convert them in the nineteenth century that they gave them shirts to cover up their nakedness. The natives, delighted by the gift of the shirts, made them their own by decorating the plain white shirts with bright colors and flowers. "We should be like the Hawaiians," he said, "obedient but joyful." The service ended and the luau began.

A few months later I attended the ordination service of a new pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in the Oakland suburbs. I entered the sanctuary to the sound of drumming. Eight young people were sitting in one of the four front rows pounding away on a variety of large African drums. The service began with a dozen robed clergy processing into the pastel-painted sanctuary arranged as a partial theater-in-the-round, singing a song from the contemporary Lutheran hymnal. The senior pastor of Grace welcomed us by using a traditional South African greeting (the newly ordained pastor would soon leave for a three-year stint at a South African Lutheran parish) and then asked us to greet one another in the same manner. All the men said, "Nda," and the women responded, "Ah" (making a glissando from high to low). We then followed one of the three regularly sung liturgies in the hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). For the scripture-reading rite, a young woman sang the Shema for the Old Testament lesson, and a Roman Catholic priest and two faculty members from the local Lutheran seminary read a number of texts from the New Testament, all of which emphasized God's love, inclusivity, and justice.

The senior pastor read the Gospel lesson, from the fourth chapter of Luke, in which Jesus delivers his first sermon and identifies his own calling to be one in which he will bring good news to the poor, set the prisoners free, and make the blind see. The pastor's sermon drew parallels between Jesus' call and the new pastor's call. "Like Jesus," he said, "you are called to speak the good news: light, joy, FREEDOM!!" Next he reminded her and all of us about Luther's understanding of the call to be a Christian by quoting from two of Luther's most remembered writings, "The Freedom of the Christian" and his alleged speech in front of the Diet of Worms in which he ended his critique of Catholicism with the words, "Here I stand, I can do no other." He finished by applying Luther's ideas and the Gospel lesson to the soon-to-be-ordained pastor's call:

This is what you are called to. You are called to preach the cross and resurrection. You are called to speak about the mysteries of Christianity: how we are all called to forgive seven times seventy times; to attain the grand status of children; to proclaim the absurdity of it all! You are not called to make Christianity palatable. Your call is tied to Luke 4 [here he read it again]. You are called sometimes to poor the acid of the gospel on the corrosion of human nature, and it won't be a pretty picture. It will cause the death of the old self. You are called to preach mercy, the crucified, resurrected mercy-the way of the cross-and people will reject it. But continue to preach it. Your call has put you in your place [pause] the place of grace.

The bishop then led the official ELCA ordination service. We ended the service with a lively South African hymn, for which the newly ordained pastor taught us the words and hand motions and the senior pastor taught us a sort of line dance that involved a lot of foot stomping. Within minutes, the entire congregation was dancing and singing along with the incessant beat of the African drums.

Ordinations and installations of pastors are extraordinary rituals in the life of a congregation. They are moments when the foundational beliefs, distinctive theological worldviews, and the most important elements of a community's religious culture are displayed. If Clifford Geertz is correct that rituals are the vehicles through which we tell ourselves stories about ourselves, then these rituals should tell us a story about the nature and salience of the historic religious tradition that should govern the congregations. At Grace Lutheran, the ordination ritual proved to be a moment in which the congregation's Lutheran theological and liturgical commitments were rehearsed but the tradition was opened up to include the social-justice concerns more central to liberal Protestantism as well as the ecumenical and global additions to the music and liturgy of the service. At Zion Lutheran, the tradition that was signaled was not Lutheran but a generic evangelicalism. The Lutheran tradition was dismissed as irrelevant and humorously outdated, and Lutheran theological ideas and liturgical practices were absent from the installation ritual. Instead, we heard the kind of music used at growing evangelical churches around the country; we heard about the centrality of the Bible for authentic Christian faith and saw how it was used instrumentally to solve problems; we heard about the important mission to convert people to Christianity (note that the ordained pastor at Grace was going to South Africa, not to convert the heathen natives, but to serve in a preexisting Lutheran parish); and finally we heard that foundational evangelical story about individuals' personal relationship with Jesus.

Two rituals in two Lutheran churches-one was grounded in the tradition, albeit one flavored by ecumenism, liberal Protestantism, and a much more emotive style of worship than customarily found; the other was not really Lutheran at all except that it took place on the front lawn of a Lutheran church. What was going on at these events? Why was the historic tradition being altered at one church and replaced with evangelicalism at another? Why was the tradition dismissed as an outdated joke at one church and blended with a variety of other traditions at another? More generally, these two events raise questions about the nature of religious change: How does the process of changing a tradition work? What parts of the tradition are saved, mined, or abandoned, and why? Under what conditions are attempts to revise the tradition met with approval or with resistance? What happens to a religious tradition and the community that bears it once it has been significantly altered?

These questions are at the heart of my ethnographic study of nine Lutheran congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Initially, the study's goal was to explain how and why some congregations were able to flourish amid a longstanding and pervasive loss of membership and participation within California Lutheranism. However, my observations and interviews during that first year revealed that several of the most successful congregations did not seem to be particularly Lutheran in theology, culture, or ritual practices. All of the congregations were intentionally reworking the inherited Lutheran tradition. Some were adopting the theologies, worship practices, and educational materials from evangelical and nondenominational megachurches; others were borrowing practices and ideas from Eastern religions or a vaguely defined seeker spirituality. Few of the clergy and even fewer of the nearly 250 members I interviewed expressed strong interest in retaining a distinctly Lutheran identity for themselves or their congregations. One pastor claimed that replacing the historic worship practices of Lutheranism with those from contemporary American evangelicalism was simply "changing the form but not the faith of Lutheranism." Why did he (and others) have this interest in altering the tradition, and is it possible to change forms through which the tradition is expressed without changing its content?

This is a book about how and why a particular religious tradition is changed, about how and why the logic and practices of evangelical religion, seeker spirituality, and the utilitarian, consumerist ethos of American society press upon and ultimately lead congregations to alter their received traditions. As such, it supplies a piece of the whole picture that is missing from sociological accounts of the restructuring of Protestantism within the United States. Much of the work on the restructuring of American religion focuses either on the macroshift s in affiliation and participation among the different branches of Protestantism or on microchanges in the religious lives of individuals. By focusing on the organizational level and closely reading the shift s in the cultural content and cultural work that occur within congregations (i.e., efforts to change their own denominational and congregational traditions), this study offers a new way of understanding the process and outcomes of religious restructuring at the outset of the new century.

This book also is about the more general process of religious and cultural change. Theoretical and empirical accounts of change within religious or cultural systems tend to understand change as an episodic phenomenon, driven by external social forces and resulting in a return to social order or stasis. Too oft en we conceptualize change as happening only during periods of "unsettled times" and overlook the ways in which organizations and individuals must create the unsettled times by interpreting events as crises. This study offers a constructivist approach to religious and cultural change. I argue that congregational leaders selectively draw on experts' interpretations of congregational growth and decline and their models of successful organizational change to construct crises of meaning and membership that they then use to justify and generate support for their efforts to rework the Lutheran tradition. At the same time, I engage in an ongoing conversation with cultural, ecological, and market-based approaches to religious change as I explain how and why local congregations rework and redefine the tradition that provides them with meaning and identity.

Finally, this book is about the relationships among religious tradition, community, and moral authority discussed instructively by Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart and more recently in studies of boomer spirituality and religion, religious restructuring, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Judaism. One consistent theme across this diverse body of scholarship is that religious tradition is necessary to create communities of memory-communities that provide enduring meaning, identity, and belonging to its members. However, the nine congregations in this study raise questions about the relationship between tradition and community. Does the creation of new traditions or the rediscovery of old traditions actually create more committed and stronger communities of faith or does it merely reinforce the move toward communities of limited liability? The data from the nine congregations also raise questions about the nature of moral authority in religious organizations. According to scholars of America's religious restructuring, individuals and congregations increasingly choose to align themselves with a given tradition or combine elements from different traditions as they create a new one. Yet the selected tradition or traditions are not considered authoritative within a congregation for its members. It appears that the very consumerist and utilitarian ethos of religious choice that has facilitated the creation and adaptation of religious tradition may be undermining the authority of the tradition. In the concluding chapters, I address these broader questions about community and authority. In the next section, I review the three broad themes of the book-religious restructuring, theories of religious change, and the relationships among tradition, community, and authority-in more detail and show how an analytic focus on the internal processes of meaning making at the level of the congregation can shed new light on some of the perennial stories of American religion.


Excerpted from THE MEGACHURCH AND THE MAINLINE by STEPHEN ELLINGSON Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1          The Restructuring of American Religious Traditions
Chapter 2          The Trouble with Tradition
Chapter 3          Constructing the Catalysts of Change
Chapter 4          Reframing the Tradition
Chapter 5          In the Image of Evangelicalism
Chapter 6          Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus
Chapter 7          Tradition and Change in the American Religious Landscape
Appendix: A Note on Data and Methods

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