Written by 9:00 am Book Review

The Churching of America 1776-2005 Book Critique

Book by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark

Review by Jim Von Wald

Overview

The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, written by professors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, outlines the history of denominations as they established churches in America.  Their historical narrative showed, with empirical data and historical records, reasons for the rise and fall of church denominations as they moved across America.  This narrative also provided a secular view of denominational church planting in America.

Finke and Stark’s writing revealed some historical gaps that filled by unverified and borrowed information resulting in “major falsifications” across the history of churches in America.[1]  This misinformation passed along in academic circles without appropriate historical criticism, which resulted in “absurd statistics” about high church membership as well as deflated church growth such as those based on the view of Lyman Beecher whose own denomination was failing.[2]  The authors brought about historical correction and stated, “We did not intend to make major revisions to the history of American religion, but unless reason and arithmetic have failed us, we have done precisely that.”[3]  The corresponding correction resulted in meaningful data and trends which led to the rise and fall of denominations in America.

Despite their work being a secular view of religion as it relates to establishing churches or church planting across America, the growth of the church adherence in America from a mere 17% in 1776 to that of 62% today is quite remarkable.[4]  Even though church adherence is not the same as conversion, the historical growth of the church in America fits the mission of God to establish His church to the ends of the earth.

Meaningful Material

Finke and Stark’s chapter three, “The Upstart Sects Win America” provides historical information how mainline denominations faltered and declined while the new church denominations grew exponentially.  The authors point to some reasons for the downfall of the mainline and the growth of the upstarts.  For example, the mainline denominations attempted to regulate who and where a new church could start, establishing cartels and local privilege to this effect.[5]  This attempt to control and persecute the upstarts, which in one instance included preaching against the itinerant traveling minister, led to a surge in attendance the next time he came in town.[6]  The resistance to the upstart church may be compared to the New Testament church, which when persecuted dispersed and continued to grow.[7]

The authors shared multiple reasons for the success of the new church plants, which the mainline denominations remained unwilling to attempt.  Some possible reasons included: having a locally organized church body; clergy of the people, often bi-vocational; passionate ministers excited their style; self-sacrificing clergy willing to work for little pay; well organized camp meetings as social events; a willingness to include slaves and women; and a missionary spirit which continually pushed the denominations to new frontiers.[8]  Present day denominations would do well to evaluate their church planting efforts against the historical record that Finke and Stark reveal to help determine if mistakes from history are reoccurring.

Significant Statement

Finke and Starks study on the secularization of the church in Colonial America revealed critical information regarding continued church planting as it relates to the mission of God.  The authors stated that success and affluence in the church plant sects of early America led to a gradual accommodation to the world and less demanding standards for membership.[9]  Becoming comfortable can lead to risk aversion.  Forward movement usually necessitates uncomfortable risk, but an essential component in church planting and God’s mission requiring faith.

They noted the academic arena as another critical component in the historical secularization of the church.  Finke and Starks stated,  “It may be that secularization ensues whenever religion is placed within a formal academic setting, for scholars seem unable to resist attempting to explain mysteries and miracles and, failing that, to exclude them.  Rather than celebrate mysteries and be thankful for miracles, religious scholars often seek a purely rational faith…where all mysteries are solved by exclusion and all miracles dismissed illusions.  Whether or not this corrosive effect of scholarship on religion is inevitable, that is what went on at Harvard and Yale, starting well before the Revolution.” [10]

Realizing this historical precedence, Christians in academia must carefully follow the advice of the Apostle Paul to guard closely that which has been entrusted, turning away from any knowledge that opposes faith.[11]  A preventative buffer to secularization develops and establishes a biblically grounded practical theology that connects theory and practice.

Critique of Content

Finke and Stark confronted the establishment’s incorrect view of many areas of America church history.  Their documentation provided the proof required to rewrite some historical narratives more accurately.  Their work helps recognize areas of peril, which a denomination can guard to help prevent secularization and demise.  Despite the value Finke and Stark’s work can bring to the church,  Martin E. Marty of the Christian Century stated, “Finke and Stark’s world contains no God or religion or spirituality, no issue of truth or beauty….only winning or losing in the churching game matters.”[12]  It is possible that Marty was not considering the mission of God in establishing the church, where winning or losing is an eternal issue, which makes winning and losing all that matters.

The authors’ writing might create a matrix of issues mainline denominations faced and their response to them, which lead to their downfall.  Forming a similar model of the upstart sects, which were successful in church planting, would show the factors contributing to growth.  Narrowing the focus to a specific denomination and connecting the historical narrative of that denomination through the matrix may produce data that could be used to analyze the trajectory of that denominations future and possible corrections needed.

Recommendation

Finke & Stark provided an opportunity to study the history of church development and denominational rise and fall in America.  Their book is recommended for those interested in learning reasons why some denominations grew while others faltered.  In the church planting realm, this is a critical issue.  Furthermore, their work reveals some misconceptions about American church history and some false historical narratives.  Teachers and students could benefit from using their material as a primer in learning American church history.  The author’s willingness to ask why and then present historical evidence to back their answers is refreshing. Denominational leaders looking into reasons for organizational decline may find this book helpful in the process of developing solutions and taking action steps.

 

 

[1] Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 2.

[3] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 1.

[4] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 23.

[5] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 61.

[6] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 64.

[7] Acts 8 (NIV).

[8] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 72-116.

[9] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 46-47.

[10] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, 47.

[11] 1 Tim. 6:20 (NIV).

[12] Finke & Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005, xiv

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