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Religion of Democracy?

In David F. Wells’ book, “God in the Wasteland”, a fair amount of time is spent discussing the trends of American Christianity after the Revolution. This is done in conjunction with a work by Finke and Stark, called “The Churching of America,” and a work by Nathan Hatch called, “The Democratization of American Christianity.” I believe this study provides some insight and yields some interesting data that somewhat relates to my previous post.

First, denominational changes are documented in terms of membership in 1776. Specifically, over half of America’s church goers were Congregationalists (20.4%), Episcopal/Anglican (15.7), and Presbyterians (Reformed) (19%).  However, by 1850, these denominations numbered 4%, 3.5%, and 11.6% respectively.   In contrast the Baptists (16.9-20.5%) and Methodists (2.5-34.2%) experienced substantial growth during this time period.  Methodist churches went from 65 in 1776, to 13,302 in 1850.  The obvious question of course is, why?  Finke and Stark believe that much of this can be explained by the political, economic, and sociological climate that arose out of the revolution. Since Baptists and Methodists were democratic at the local level, this gave them an enormous advantage in the days after the Revolution. As Wells puts it, “The young nation offered an environment in which ordinary, often untrained people found the freedom to act on their own impulses, unhampered by the doctrines of the past, whether Christian or political…” (Wells, 65).

Because many of the “common folk” associated the well-educated clergy with the old world and the like, an anti-clerical and anti-intellectual undercurrent took hold, with the leaders of these populist movements wanting to “…destroy the monopoly of classically educated and university trained clergymen” (Hatch, 162). In fact, some have estimated that only 100 of 2,000 Baptist clergy had a college level education, and in 1844, only 50 of the 4,282 Methodist circuit riders had an education beyond grade-school. This is coupled with the shift towards democracy, where “the church-centered faith …retreated before itinerant revivalism, reasoned faith retreated before exuberant testimony, and theological confession retreated before the self-evident truths of experience” (Wells, 67). One can imagine what this has done in areas such as worship and theology.

This being said, it is not my intention to imply that this change was completely bad or lacking any merit. On the contrary, the ability of some of these Pastors/Teachers to be among “the people,” can be an asset, and some of the institutions associated with the old world contained clergy that were spiritually dead. And while clergy/pastors should be as educated as possible, extenuating circumstances can of course dictate otherwise. However, the wholesale rejection of many historic Christian practices, the glorification of democracy, and the overemphasis on “personal experiences/conversion experiences” has created or contributed to the sort of democratic, informal social club gatherings that are called “worship services.” It can easily be seen how such an environment capitulates to modern/postmodern culture in the name of “being relevant.” Also, it is hard not to believe that many in the western world have made democracy out to be some sort of god or idol. Some churches that wisely reject much of the modern/postmodern culture still contain some of these same tendencies as well, instead substituting 19th century revivalism as the norm or goal.

While much of this information takes time to digest and process, it seems clear that historical knowledge and theological wisdom would go a long way in remedying some of these phenomena. At this time, the present author still longs for the intellectual, cultural, and historic inheritance of the church, while remembering the church’s obligation to also be among the people. Perhaps this makes one a “high-church Baptist/Methodist,” which some may consider a contradiction in terms, especially in light of the above. Any thoughts or solutions?

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4 Comments

  1. Andrew Hayes says:

    The solution could be education. I don’t mean to knock on-line education but it is typically of lesser quality than being at the campus physically. Perhaps, the fault lies at the seminary/bible college level as well. However, I don’t think there is any singular scapegoat. All are probably to blame. The pastor also has a unique position especially at congregational churches where job security is a constant threat. Pastoral burnout is another issue since the stint is so short because too much is demanded of them. So here are some possible solutions.

    1) Return to an “apprenticeship” model. In earlier times, to learn one’s craft you followed around a learned, experience mentor. pastoral ministry is no exception. I believe we do a poor job at passing along experience so pastor’s have to relearn many lessons that could be prevented.

    2)Have realistic expectations for a pastor as a congregation. Too often a pastor is to be businessman, psychologist, scholar, teacher, and community organizer. consider alleviating much of this. A pastor’s primary duty ought to be spiritual leadership not committed to the institution of the church. Some of this is on the pastor as well. He needs to set some clear boundaries for his time.

    3) All pastors should seek some formal education especially if they are undisciplined in their own study. The value of understanding original languages, orthodox theology, church history, etc. cannot be overemphasized.

    This is just some impressions that I think could help. Definitely, need some refining.

  2. I agree with you about online education to a point, although there are certainly exceptions, and not all online schools are created equal. Some student should certainly never go online, as it is productive only for people that are self-taught and intellectually disciplined. I fault some in the “bible college” idea because of its sola scriptura in extremis stance, where the only thing studied was bible knowledge at the expense of church history, historical-grammatical tools, and the list you provide. Great for memorizing scripture, but horrible for scholarship.

    I completely agree that some congregational churches are based on mob rule, but some congregational churches are more “presbyterian” then they may admit. I do have a question though, as you mention a pastor providing spiritual leadership but not being committed to the institution of the church. What exactly does this entail? If you are referring to the pastor not being a business CEO etc…then I probably agree for the most part. However, the church as a culture forming/reforming institution requires active pastoral leadership in the areas you mention.

  3. Andrew Hayes says:

    I meant the CEO status that many associate with the pastor. Sorry, pastor ought to be committed to the institution not the business, administrative level. After talking to several pastors, this “business’ side of the church is a constant drain on time. I was thinking in terms of priority. And if you expect pastors to be all of the above (scholar, psychologist, community organizer, etc.) you’re being unrealistic!

  4. Andrew Hayes says:

    That’s the goal of the church. it’s being a part of the team. Pastors aren’t the only leaders of the church: theologians, scholars, elders, deacons.

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