Part 1 of the series “The Dis-Integration of the Church”
Editor’s note: Darren Slade is Director of Research at The FaithX Project. He contributes regularly to the FaithX blog, both curating research on church fragmentation and offering original contributions of his own, such as today’s post. This post is updated and expanded from the original.
According to Ken Howard’s research, the number of new Christian congregations throughout the world outpaces the total number of new Christians, indicating that the growth of worship centers is largely due to Christian fragmentation more than it is to evangelistic practices. In other words, churches are breaking up more than they are converting or reproducing more Christians. Some have speculated that fragmentation and apostasy occurs in the West because of the architecture of church buildings, which no longer have any significance or relevance for the postmodern world. By isolating themselves to a particular building, Christianity has inadvertently separated itself from the rest of society. However, a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reveals that millennial Catholics are leaving the faith largely because they no longer view Catholicism as compatible with what they are learning in school, especially with regards to science. Most former Catholics simply no longer believe in God. But what of non-Catholic Christians who remain in church, especially those who consider themselves conservative fundamentalists or evangelicals? What reasons could explain fragmentation within this demographic?
Christian Smith theorizes that the pervasive effects of “biblicism” is the cause for conservative fragmentation. He writes, “On important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality. It is, in fact, the single reality that has most shaped the organizational and cultural life of the Christian church, which now, particularly in the United States, exists in a state of massive fragmentation.” Smith cites others who concur, such as N. T. Wright, who comments, “It seems to be the case that the more you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right.” Geoffrey Bromiley states, “We have to recognize that the Bible is … a fruitful source of dissension and disunity in and among churches, so that acceptance of its authority does not solve at once the problem of unity….The interpretation of the Bible gives rise to a whole series of more or less important and divisive differences….Even in this sphere [of biblical interpretation] there is the constant bias to disunity.” But are differences in biblical interpretations a viable explanation for the phenomena of church splits among conservatives? Sociological studies may have an answer.
Known as “religious homophily,” sociological research suggests that people have a predisposed attraction to those who share similar religious beliefs as their own and, thus, associate principally (if not exclusively) with only a certain kind of religious grouping. In fact, one study shows that religion, more than ethnicity, gender, age, or social class, dominates as the most significant determiner of homophily. In a multilevel analysis of the U. S. Congregational Life Survey (USCLS), respondents who adhere to “exclusive” theological dogmas are far more likely to say that the congregation provides most or all of their closest friends. The implication is that the more exclusive a person’s theological principles, the less probable they are to derive friendships or develop relationships outside of their personal theological circles. This data signifies that while an exclusive congregation is more conducive for social embeddedness, it is not favorable toward a diversity of opinions or perspectives. A survey conducted by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) confirms these findings when it reveals that “high tension” religious groups, those whose congregants reject many of the sociocultural conventions of their environment and impose greater moral strictness on the congregation, will develop friendships primarily from within their churches. Four out of ten (43%) members of strict churches responded that half or more of their personal friends attend their particular place of worship whereas only one in ten (13%) said that half or more of their friends do not attend religious services. The reverse is true for those in “low tension” religious groups where only 18% said that half or more of their friends attend the same church while 30% said half or more of their friends do not attend religious services. However, two-thirds (68%) of American churchgoers overall, regardless of whether they are high or low tension groups, say that none or only a few of their friends attend their specific place of worship, whereas one-third (32%) say half, most, or all of their friends are members of the same congregation. Taken as a whole, the ISR indicates that while most churches in America are not “gathered churches,” meaning their congregations are not comprised of closed social networks, conservative churches tend to be less open and find most of their social support from within the same theological environment.
The notion that conservative Christians tend to build friendships primarily with people who share their same theological convictions is no surprise since religionists purposely tend to seek out people of the same attitudes, oftentimes within the same ethnic and socio-economic structure. Research has demonstrated that people who do not have strong social connections within a congregation are unlikely to remain members of that assembly or to be active members of the church. Not surprisingly, only 20% of church members with no friends in the congregation actively volunteer while 60% with half or more of their friends in the same church will volunteer on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the nature of maintaining theological cohesion within a specific religious organization tends to discount the possibly of congregants befriending nonchurch members or those with different beliefs. In other words, Christians are liable to exclude the possibility of building relationships with those deemed to be outsiders. Active church members, especially among those who hold exclusive theologies, lack exposure to diverse groups and perspectives found in nonchurch organizations, which also creates a disconnect between conservative Christians and members of the general community, thereby hindering the opportunity for human solidarity, restricting access to information, and deterring social action.
Sustaining theological allegiances is not shocking since research shows that religious homophily increases an individual’s perceived social support from the in-group. Associating with theologically similar people creates a perception that the person has an alliance of friendships that are instrumental to their psychological well-being. Nevertheless, the exclusive nature of conservative social networking does not hinder proselytizing or evangelizing nonchurch members. Of those who say that half or more of their friends attend the same congregation, two-fifths (44%) claim to regularly share their faith with strangers and just over half (52%) claim to do volunteer work in their communities. The implication here is that while these congregants derive most of their friendships from within the same theological circle, their in-group mentality does not automatically isolate them from outsiders. Of course, the inverse is also true. Roughly half of congregants whose social networks mostly incorporate other church members (56% and 48% respectively) are oriented inward toward their own closed system.
It is here that Smith’s theory of why conservative Christians experience fragmentation is especially pertinent. Members of an in-group are inclined to evade and shun members of a perceived out-group whenever the in-group affixes an adverse characteristic to outsiders. Those with exclusive religious opinions establish strict theological and social boundaries that limit their exposure to theological interlopers while creating an “us-versus-them” temperament. The in-group consists of those who are loyal to the congregation’s agenda while non-loyalists are relegated to an out-group. Adhering to and maintaining exclusive views intensifies religious homophily by eradicating or disqualifying theological challengers. Loyalty is given only to groups with “correct” opinions and to no others, further isolating conservative Christians from discordant social and religious belief systems. Thus, if one group within a congregation believes they possess the exclusive and correct interpretation of a passage in Scripture, then they are likely to shun divergent interpretations. And because religious homophily tends to exclude certain types of friendships while creating greater cohesion among members of the in-group, there is a better chance for congregations to split because of hermeneutical differences.
A propensity for splintering over interpretive issues is not altogether unknown since it appears to be a common characteristic of conservative Christianity. Nathan Hatch comments that American evangelicalism has a “populist and decentralized structure” that leads to a “penchant for splitting, forming, and reforming.” Hatch explains elsewhere, “[Different evangelical groupings] were extremely diverse coalitions dominated by scores of self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders. Had not dominant personalities sounded an alarm and begun building their own popular constituencies, these movements would not have come into existence.” Of course, church history displays multiple fragmentations over major theological differences throughout the centuries. However, the state of the church today demonstrates that even indigenous congregations have developed their own personalized liturgies, worship styles, music, and polity that indicates fragmentation occurs at a more nuanced level. In confirmation of Smith’s theory, biblical interpretation is likely to be a leading cause of church fragmentation since “biblicism” remains pervasive among conservative fundamentalists and evangelicals. When congregants hold to exclusive theological beliefs, it is appropriate to conjecture that their biblical interpretations will also become exclusive and, thus, isolationist, which may result in fragmentation under the right conditions.
We would like to hear from you, so tell us your stories. Let us know what you think about this article. Have disputes over proper interpretations fragmented your own church? Have you witnessed people leaving your congregation because they disagree with how a pastor has interpreted a particular passage in Scripture?
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