Denominational identity still important

Denominational identity still important

March 31, 2001
Written by Staff Reports

Billed as "a massive study of 14,301 congregations," a report on the health of faith communities in the United States suggests that we may not be living in a "post-denominational" culture after all.

The report also shows that while the United Church of Christ is more liberal than most other Christian denominations, the largest group of UCC congregations describe their members as "moderate." Smaller percentages of self-described liberal and conservative congregations were in almost equal balance, suggesting that the UCC continues to be a theologically-centrist denomination.

However, almost half of liberal churches in the UCC are growing while most moderate and conservative churches are losing members.

"Faith Communities Today" (FACT) was sponsored by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at the historically UCC-related Hartford (Conn.) Seminary. Thirty-six Christian traditions participated, along with the Bah?'i, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist faiths.

Almost every brand of Christianity was represented. It was the most comprehensive study of organized religion ever conducted in the United States.

The FACT website at includes a complete copy of the report and an "interactive workbook" for congregations.

Church shopping

Christian "denominations" were originally organized in colonial America as expressions of a particular ethnic or confessional identity. But the "post-denominational" trend in the years since World War II reflects both the decline of strong ethnic identity among European Americans and a consumerist mentality among many Americans who find themselves "shopping" for a spiritual home that fits their needs and aspirations. Non-denominational "mega-churches" have benefited from this trend. But the FACT report shows that strong denominational identity persists.

More than 62 percent of all congregations are "high on denominational heritage," the report said. Surprisingly, denominational cohesion seems to work for both conservative and liberal churches. Congregations with clear denominational identity included both churches that emphasized the authority of scripture and churches that stressed "human reason" or "personal experience." Most of the congregations with strong denominational ties reported that their finances were either "good" or "excellent."

Denominational identity was below-average in the UCC, however. Only 38 percent of our congregations rated their expression of denominational heritage as "good" or "very good," compared to 48 percent in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and 79 percent in the Episcopal Church. At 94 percent, denominational identity was strongest among Mormon congregations.

A 'centrist' church?

The report classifies the UCC with the Unitarian Universalist Association, Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on the "liberal" end of the Protestant spectrum. But a closer analysis of the trends suggests that a better word for these denominations—except the very liberal UUA—might be "centrist." Results for both the UCC and Episcopal Church, for example, showed a "moderate" center of gravity, though there were significant numbers of congregations to the left and right of that center.

In the UCC, 5.6 percent of the churches responding to the survey described their members as "very liberal or progressive," 22.4 percent as "somewhat liberal or progressive," 23.6 percent as "somewhat conservative" and 3.4 percent as "very conservative." Those results suggested a nearly equal balance between liberal and conservative congregations. The self-described "moderate" group, however, was the largest at 45 percent.

In the Episcopal Church, moderate congregations represented 41 percent of the total.

In the more liberal UUA, only 7.8 of congregations classified their members as moderate and 1.8 percent as conservative or very conservative.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the moderate group in the Southern Baptist Convention represented 9.3 percent of the total, while 0.3 percent were "somewhat liberal" and no congregations were "very liberal." The Southern Baptist results reflect the exodus of moderate and liberal Southern Baptist congregations in the past several years.

Sources of authority

The overwhelming majority of congregations surveyed by FACT—82 percent—said "sacred scripture" was "absolutely foundational" to their community. Given the diversity of the sample, however, "scripture" could mean the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Quran.

The "Holy Spirit" was also an important source of authority. It was "absolutely foundational" for 60 percent of congregations. "Historic creeds and doctrines" were foundational for only 15 percent, "personal experience" for 13 percent and "human reason" for 8 percent.

Here, too, the UCC appears to be a theologically centrist denomination. A majority of our congregations—53.2 percent—said the Bible was "absolutely foundational," with the Holy Spirit a distant second at 16.1 percent, reason at 9.2 percent, personal experience at 6.3 percent and creeds in last place at 6.1 percent. The survey of Episcopal congregations produced similar results with one exception: historic creeds were foundational for 37.5 percent of the total.

In the UUA, the priorities were reversed: reason was a critical source of authority for 44.8 percent and personal experience for 41.1 percent.

The Holy Spirit was rated highly by 2.5 percent, creeds by 1.8 percent and the Bible by only 1 percent.

Healthy congregations

The survey suggested that both liberal and conservative congregations can grow if they communicate "clarity of purpose," provide opportunities for spiritual nurture, and energize Sunday mornings with "uplifting worship." Kirk Hadaway, the UCC's research director, says that responses from growing UCC congregations showed these characteristics:

 Excitement about the future;

 Personal involvement in recruitment;

 Strong participation by teenagers;

 Contemporary music and lively worship;

 Opportunities to learn about faith;

 Commitment to social justice.

What are the characteristics of declining congregations in the UCC? "These tend to be churches that have little sense of excitement or expectancy in worship, are not open to new ways of doing ministry, do not easily accept newcomers, and offer few programs to help members grow in their faith," Hadaway says.

In the UCC, declining congregations also tend to be more conservative than average. "Even in the Southern Baptist Convention, where the whole spectrum shifts to the right, it's not the ultraconservative churches that are growing fastest but the relatively moderate congregations," he says.

Among self-described liberal churches in the UCC, almost half—48 percent—are growing, compared to 37 percent of moderate congregations and 25 percent of conservative congregations. If those trends continue, the UCC later in this century will be more heavily weighted towards the liberal than the conservative end of the theological spectrum.

Conflict is another characteristic of decline in UCC congregations, says Hadaway. "Theological conflict tends to be less destructive in declining churches than conflict over finances or the pastor's leadership style," he says. Growing churches are less absorbed by conflict, Hadaway adds. But absence of conflict is not always the best indicator of a congregation's health: how churches resolve conflict is also important. Growing churches are not afraid of conflict if they acknowledge conflict openly and take seriously their "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:16- 21).

The FACT report showed that conflict tends to "erode vitality" in all religious traditions. But "openness in dealing with conflict is strongly associated with vitality," it said.

Congregations with a clear sense of purpose are least threatened by conflict, the report said. "Indeed, openness in dealing with conflict does not imply a lack of standards or a loss of discipline. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. Congregations that have unclear or implicit expectations for members are far more likely to experience higher levels of conflict."

Worship as a key

Among Protestant denominations as a whole, "uplifting worship" was a key element of the identity of growing congregations. Just over 50 percent of growing congregations in "liberal" Protestant churches described their worship as "always contemporary," and results were similar for moderate and evangelical churches. "Protestant groups that have emphasized contemporary worship and electronic musical instruments, rather than traditional forms, show a dramatic increase in their appeal to new members," the study said. "Congregational change in worship reflects a major strategy by congregations to adapt to socially transitional communities."

But one size does not necessarily fit all, at least in the UCC. "Contemporary worship"with drums and electronic instruments was one characteristic of growing congregations, but so was traditional music enhanced with strings and woodwinds. And not all of the growth-oriented religious communities in the United States are following the trend towards contemporary worship. In the fast-growing Mormon church, music tends to be conservative and electronic instruments are banned.

Ecumenical ties

Ecumenical ties are strongest between mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Christians. These congregations tend to place more emphasis on ecumenical worship and collaboration. More than 50 percent of these congregations are active in ecumenical relationships, with "liberal" Protestant churches reporting the highest rate of involvement with other denominations. Only about 30 percent of evangelical congregations reported any ecumenical involvement.

Andy Lang, coordinator of the UCC website, is a student of religious history. UCC statistics from the FACT study used in this story were provided by Kirk Hadaway, UCC director of research.

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How the UCC measures up

Here are some statistics based on the Hartford Institute report.

UCC congregations describe themselves as...

Liberal: 28% Moderate: 45% Conservative: 27%

Which UCC congregations are growing?

Liberal: 48% Moderate: 37% Conservative: 25%

What is "foundational" for UCC churches?

Bible: 53.2% Holy Spirit: 16.1%   Reason: 9.2%

Experience: 6.3%   Creeds: 6.1%

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