But Ammerman, a sociologist of religion from Boston University who has written extensively on American congregational life, also knows that Lake Wobegon isn’t real. It’s made-up, and it’s based on an idea of church that’s fading fast.
She also knows what kinds of congregations are taking its place, and she sees a future with real vitality for congregations that know what to do and how to do it.
In a series of lectures recently at Louisville Seminary, Ammerman laid out what she sees as key issues for U.S. congregations to consider as they look ahead — not just what the demographics show, but also what she has learned from the interviews her research team has conducted with folks from more than 500 congregations, “from AME to Zen,” as she puts it.
One of her conclusions is that for congregations to make a difference in meeting the needs of the world, they first have to pay attention to what happens within their own doors.
They have to take seriously their spiritual mission — to provide worship that connects people with God, and to give them opportunities for spiritual growth.
They need to tell their stories of faith, to help people know what makes that place different from any other place, to understand what their particular tradition considers to be true. They need to welcome and listen to those who come with their own faith stories to tell — to open their doors and their hearts — and they need do things so exciting that together, they will create new stories.
And congregations need to build partnerships in the community with people who may not be exactly like them or believe exactly what they believe — who aren’t Lake Wobegon at all — but who are willing to join them in doing God’s work in the world, Ammerman said. That’s especially important when so many congregations are small, she said. They may not have the resources to do something alone, but all around the country they’re teaming creatively with others in a sort of grassroots ecumenism to make things better for the people around them.
Until recently, Ammerman, a Baptist, taught and did research (sometimes with funding from the Lilly Foundation) at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. Her current book, to be published this year, is titled Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners, Building Traditions, Building Community. Here’s more of what she had to say during Louisville Seminary’s annual Greenhoe Lectures.
The United States has, since its founding, been a religiously plural nation, Ammerman said — so much so that when the nation’s Constitution was written, no one religious group had enough clout to try to declare itself the established religion. Yet diversity does not in this country translate to unbelief. Instead, she said, the American tradition is one of continuous religious innovation and inventiveness.
“Almost all Americans say that they believe in God,” Ammerman said. About one-quarter of Americans regularly attend religious services. But some worry, she said, that “churches are losing their clout and their members” and that the statistics on those who say they believe in God cover up a soggy concoction of half-baked belief.
Ammerman looks to the statistics, and to the experience people in congregations have described to her, to figure out what’s going on. Her concern is not that people don’t have faith in God. It’s that congregations may not always understand the implications for them of the changing dynamics.
There have been some definite changes in demographics and behavior in recent decades to which churches need to pay attention, Ammerman said. Changes in U.S. immigration policy have brought “a much wider range of newcomers,” more people coming from more places, bringing their own religions with them. And even for those born in this country, most of us “are very familiar with the world of packing crates and change-of-address forms,” she said.
In short: we move, we switch towns and churches. Sometimes when we do, we drop out of one congregation and never bother to find someplace new.
Many congregations still assume that the way to grow — to add new members — is to bring in young families, she said.
But that approach disregards what the statistics reveal. Fewer than one in five U.S. households is made up of a married couple with children. Three of ten are married couples without children at home, one quarter live alone, and one in five households involve what she described as “a whole variety of living arrangements.” To really be welcoming, Ammerman said, congregations don’t just need to reach out to parents with young children — but to people in all sorts of configurations and stages of life.
And, unlike in mythical Lake Wobegon, most people don’t stick with the church in which they grew up. In urban areas, three of four congregations report that a majority of their members didn’t grow up in that denomination — they’re not cradle Presbyterians or Catholics or Lutherans, Ammerman said. In a way that didn’t used to happen nearly so much, people marry across faith traditions and choose their congregations because they like the worship and mission commitment at a certain place, not because the congregation is from a particular denomination. Many people are perfectly happy to church-shop and to switch if they find something they like better.
There’s no way, she said, that congregations can rely on loyalty or stability or even a great spot on a busy street to fill the pews. The teenagers from the youth group probably won’t stick around. The young adults who marry and have children, rather than returning to the fold of the church of their childhood, might switch to something new.
But there may be strength in that mixing-things-up, Ammerman said. When congregations stop depending on the culture and force of habit to bring people in, “we may discover what it means to depend on each other and on our God.”
Ammerman also said that internal diversity — differences among those sitting in the pews in any particular place — poses challenges in building a sense of congregational community. With generational differences, it can be difficult to find a style of worship on which people can agree. And in most congregations, there’s at least some diversity in race and economic class, she said. About 10 percent of the congregations her research team surveyed were so ethnically diverse they couldn’t be put into any category. Some of the most racially integrated congregations are Pentecostal churches, Ammerman said — where the intense, emotional, expressive form of worship is drawing in people of all colors from around the world.
That kind of diversity presents questions of how congregations can be inclusive — really inclusive, not just on paper.
“The church still has to figure out how do we welcome strangers at our doors,” Ammerman said. And “how do we welcome strangers in our midst?
All of this leads Ammerman to conclude that congregations are built of entirely voluntary associations — and that creating a sense of community has to be intentional, has to be done deliberately, and “before we can learn to speak of God in public we’re going to have to learn to speak of God among ourselves” — to give people places where they can bring their questions and talk openly about their diverse experiences of life and of God. Building a congregation, she said, is hard work.
Some of the results Ammerman’s research team reached after interviewing hundreds of congregations were common-sense, she said. Thy asked pretty basic questions. “What are you up to here? What kinds of things are important to you?”
Among their conclusions: the most important work of a congregation is spiritual work, including worship, Bible study and religious education. Nearly all congregations “think the spiritual work they do makes a real difference, and I’m convinced they’re right,” Ammerman said. Worshiping together can give people an alternative world view — a way of looking at life that’s less consumer-driven and competitive, for example, and more about loving one’s neighbors. People who worship together “often experience a world in which God is in control,” Ammerman said. And that different way of looking at the world each Sunday “can make a difference on Monday morning” too.
She also contends that congregations need to work intentionally at building community — at making people feel they belong, at giving them chances to connect with one another and talk about what they think about the world. In a complex, mobile world, people need a place to meet together, to work together on projects they consider worth doing, to build trust. And what they gain from doing that can then be put to work in the broader world, Ammerman said.
In congregations, people learn skills — for example, how to organize things, how to state an opinion, how to teach and lead — that they can use in other places too, she said.
And congregations find so many ways to give back. People who volunteer in congregations are also more likely to volunteer in the community, Ammerman said. Two-thirds of U.S. congregations let other groups — from Alcoholics Anonymous to the Boy Scouts — use space in their buildings for little or no cost during the week. Congregations give money and food and Christmas gifts and tube socks to the homeless. And they often do their work in in partnership with others outside of their denomination or even their own faith tradition — working in soup kitchens, resettling refugees, working for peace, providing job training.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “we saw churches and religious organizations of all kinds springing into action and mobilizing their connections,” making things happen across all kinds of lines, Ammerman said. Researcher Donald Miller has called that “street-level ecumenism,” she said — what happens when volunteers show up at the soup kitchen and find like-minded folks from other congregations, or from no congregation at all. (And all the congregation-switching that Ammerman described sometimes amounts to a “pragmatic ecumenism,” she said.)
What sometimes doesn’t happen, however, is intentional conversation. Congregations don’t always give people involved in this work a theological framework to describe why they’re doing what they’re doing, or a chance to talk with each other about what they’ve encountered.
Ammerman argues that “building strong congregations means creating and telling stories of faith,” of God at work in the world. In being intentional about doing that, she said, congregations welcome people in — they let people know that that their stories and their experiences matter, and are part of the fabric of the whole. They also learn that in working together, the congregation is creating new stories that need to be told.
As an example, she told of one United Church of Christ pastor in the Northeast who challenged her liberal congregation to come to worship during Lent and to share their testimonies — a practice maybe more common among conservatives than liberals. But this pastor asked people to be ready to tell something of their own lives, and “the only rule was that God had to be present in the story.”
The stories poured forth, and they were remarkable.
Now, the congregation tells about the Lent where they started giving testimonies.
Ammerman’s research also has found that about half of the congregations they contacted still considered being part of a denomination to be an important part of their identity. In many of those places, aware that lots of people were coming from other faith traditions, the church leaders tried to reinforce the traditions and teaching of the denomination — using the denomination’s hymnal and curriculum, for example, even though they had other choices. Part of going out into the world, she said, is knowing where you’ve come from.
Asked by someone in the audience what her greatest fear is for mainline denominations, Ammerman answered: “I fear they won’t wake up soon enough to discover they’re not mainline anymore,” wake up in time to forge a distinct identity with an appeal of its own.