Nancy Ammerman On. American Congregations. Interviewer: Tracy Schier

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1 Nancy Ammerman On Interview with Nancy T. Ammerman American Congregations Interviewer: Tracy Schier As of July 2003, Nancy T. Ammerman moved from Hartford Seminary to Boston University where she assumed a professorship in the School of Theology and in the Department of Sociology. From 1995, Ammerman served as Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford Seminary, in the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. From , she taught sociology of religion at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Previous to that, she held part-time appointments in the departments of sociology at Yale and Princeton, and in the department of religion at Columbia University. Her doctorate in sociology is from Yale. Among Ammerman s publications are Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World (Rutgers University Press, 1987), Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (Rutgers, 1990), and Congregation and Community (Rutgers, 1997). The Lilly Endowment sponsored her work for the latter book, a study of twenty-three congregations in the U.S. that encountered various forms of neighborhood change. Most recently, Ammerman has been engaged in a Lilly-sponsored project with Hartford colleagues David A. Roozen and Adair T. Lummis. Their study looks systematically at newly emergent ways that religious work is being organized to meet the challenges of what the researchers call a paradigm shift from modern to postmodern forms of organization. Ammerman s specific work in this project involved analyzing the complexities that exist in the way local churches accomplish their work, showing how congregations Page 1 of 6

2 forge paths of connection with other congregations and social agencies to deliver their services. Ammerman plans to continue her research on congregations at Boston University. This conversation is edited. Q. As you look at American congregations today, do you see that denominational specificity is important to churchgoers? A. The answer to that is yes and no. There are three dominant stories about denominational identity today. In one narrative, we see a population that is characterized by mobility, education, interfaith marriage, and, indeed, switching from one denomination to another. Their story leads to their placing less importance on their denominational tradition. There is a qualification to this story, however. People do tend to stay in broad religious families and so we see evangelicals staying within that category, members of mainline churches staying within that family, and the same with pentecostals. So in one sense, the broad differences are alive and well but the small differences are where we see the diminishment of denominational identity. The second of the dominant stories gives us the mirror image of the persons just described. These are people living in places where the denominational identities are strong in rural areas, for example, as opposed to cities, for Catholics more than for Protestants, and for African-Americans these are big sectors where, despite things like mobility and education, continuity and denominational loyalty remain strong. My third story has to do with both mainline and conservative Protestant congregations that have all the risk factors (mobility, etc.) but are choosing to teach their new members about their traditions, their theology and their practices. They are passing on their narratives and histories and they are instilling their tradition by using the denomination s prayerbooks and hymnbooks. And they use language such as we Methodists or we Episcopalians, making their rootedness a factor in their congregational life. What are the most important components of the glue that binds people within their own congregations? Page 2 of 6

3 Most congregations see their core tasks as worship, religious education, and fellowship and they put worship at the top. There is no gap between leaders and congregation members in naming and valuing these three core tasks. And so, to get to the question, if a congregation is doing these three things well, people stay glued. You will find that this is where organizational energy goes and where people are putting their money. What we have seen in the African American churches, the conservative Protestant churches, and in the liturgical Protestants (such as Episcopalians and Lutherans) is a significant organizational investment in worship in choirs, the offering of many services, guilds that support the worship aspect of congregational life, programs for children and youth, well-trained adult leadership, and so on. Interestingly, there is a caution here for mainline Protestants and even Catholics where you do not find as much of that. If worship is the core task, then there must be an organizational investment in developing that. Q. Why are the mainline churches not as invested in worship-related activities as the churches that you cite? A. I think that mainline Protestants have historically assumed that the larger culture would be of assistance to them. Think back it was the members of the mainline churches who were on the town councils, the school boards and so on. It was the common wisdom that their kids would simply absorb religious messages and traditions from this larger culture. No other religious tradition could operate under this assumption because they had outsider status and they were forced into what we call organizational robustness in order to survive. At some point the mainline patterns ceased to be functional at this larger cultural level and the churches were left with bad habits that are hard to change. In some instances, putting robust religious education structures in place smacks of sectarianism to the mainline. They need to understand that you don t have to dislike the culture to educate about your own culture. Q. You have found that pastors go more readily to local colleges and seminaries for ideas and support (such as seminars and workshops) than to their denominational offices. What is happening here? Page 3 of 6

4 A. A couple of things are operative here. First, we all know that denominational bodies have limited resources. But second, pastors getting together with fellow pastors always carried some freight. To engage in professional development means admitting that one is not a perfect pastor. Especially in the non-hierarchical denominations there is a certain amount of competitiveness that exists. Local colleges and seminaries provide a lessthreatening, more neutral environment for pastors to engage in continuing education and development. Q. Are there long-range implications in this trend? A. Well, on the one hand, as pastors attend these events they are meeting people across religious lines and a pessimistic view would be that this could erode distinctions among the denominations. But I really don t see this necessarily happening. The pastors that I see talk in terms of their differences and there is a great deal of sharing and respect that exists in these situations. Q. Where are the strongest points of intersection between congregations and their denomination offices? A. When we did our research, the single most common resource that was named was the camps. People see the camps as a resource for their congregations and for helping to strengthen faith and faith commitments in their kids. Another strong point of intersection between congregations and their denominations is around national and global missions. A surprising number of individuals say that international mission work is essential for what their congregation should be doing. This goes back to the narrative practices issue. People in congregations do say things like We are the people who are out there and I can work together with others of like faith to do good things in the world. We saw high levels of relief and development work being done by evangelicals and by the mainline. Evangelicals are more comfortable talking about evangelism but they actually put more money into relief and development than mainline Protestants. The growth of the short-term mission team is a real phenomenon. This is something done by local congregations across denominations. While, from an Page 4 of 6

5 organizational perspective, this can be tough for mission boards to deal with because these mission teams are coordinated within the denomination, this phenomenon gives congregation members a sense of being personally connected to a mission. And to many, this is key to being connected to the denomination. It is interesting that many see that what they can do through the denomination is greater than what they see the denomination doing for them. In other words, their engagement is more important than what they get from the denomination offices. Q. Do you see technology advances, such as the Internet, helping or hindering congregations as they define their identity? A. At first glance, things like the Internet and can be seen as identityneutral. But there is an advantage to these trends in that they can make resources that teach about the tradition accessible to churches in ways that did not exist before. I think that is interesting to think about and how it can enhance a sense of community. People are using and the Internet for theological discussions and for praying for each other. For example, I know of an extended family that posts prayer lists and at 6 p.m. they all pray for each other. Q. You found that activist mainline churches are rare. Can you tell our readers a bit about who the activists are and how they might differ from the others? A. The research showed us that only 3 or 4% of the churches we looked at could be called activist. My definition of the word is that they have a social change orientation, literally wanting to change the world by organizing protests and engaging social justice issues. Also, they have to see their desire for social change in the top of the list of their church s priorities. These activist churches are different from service congregations that have soup kitchens, for instance. While many of these service congregations do good work, they do not have such an overt commitment to larger social change. I had the opportunity to be with a working group, Vital Liberal Congregations, that met at the Louisville Institute. Among them it was very clear that in order to carry out their critically important ministry in the world they had to nurture the spirit of their congregation members first. These churches tend to the Page 5 of 6

6 basics and realize that they have to build on a foundation of religious education. They construct worship experiences that call people to transcendence that touch the heart as much as the head. We found that people who are most involved in their churches are involved in their communities outside of church as well. Our data show that involvement in church activities and in community activities is not an either/or thing. When you ask people to be involved in the parish it prompts them to also be involved in the community. Q. Please talk about what happens when congregations partner with non-religious organizations. Do these good works become exercises in good citizenship and not much else? A. A lot of partnering goes on. And mainline churches are more likely to do this, with the exception of working with government agencies. Black churches are more likely to partner with government. My speculation is this: on the one hand this activity is utterly pragmatic about combining resources and how to best use them. On the other hand, I don t see that the churches are benefiting as much as they should from the experiences. When members of a congregation are out in a community program or project they learn a lot about the needs of the world and maybe even what God is up to. But back in their congregations these people don t have opportunities to tell about their experiences or have occasion to process what they are learning. That to me is the only dangerous thing about congregations partnering with non-religious agencies that the congregations are not using these opportunities to help their members process the experiences and to grow in their faith out of these encounters with the needs of the larger community. Page 6 of 6

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