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Distrustful of institutions, in faith as in all else, American Protestants, Jews, and Catholics have created their own intimate and distinctive religious associations

Catholic charismatics, New York City, 1992. By Lee Romero/ New York Times

BY alan wolfe

Americans have always been suspicious of institutions, or at least of those that become national in scope and bureaucratic in nature. And these anti-institutional proclivities spill over into the contemporary practice of religion: A 1993 survey of baby boomers found not only that 54 percent believe "churches and synagogues have lost the real spiritual part of religion," but also that one-third subscribe to the proposition that "people have God within them, so churches aren't necessary."

Religious denominations these days offer a sense of belonging in the same way that the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Association of Railroad Passengers do; one joins them only in the most passive, coupon-clipping sort of way. When it comes to the more intimate and personal sense of belonging called fellowship, Americans tend to view themselves as belonging to the church around the corner, not the denominational headquarters in New York or Nashville.

All politics, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill famously said, is local; so, it turns out, is religion. The preference for localism that led Americans to create a federal system of government and to disdain cities has also caused them to be distrustful of the idea of a national church, or even national churches.

Of all religions in the United States, the spirit-filled Pentecostals have been in the forefront of efforts to capture the enthusiasm that comes when worship is warm and personal. It is therefore worth noting that there are some believers who find even Pentecostal church practices, despite their singing and shouting, too institutional and stultifying. "It was so dead for me," writes Jenny Orr on a Christian Web page, about her experiences in one such church. "I watched as people were going nuts and dancing and shouting and I felt like I was looking at this thru some kind of soundproof and feeling-proof glass. . . . I was dying more and more each time I went. . . . I could feel the flow become a trickle, and then nothing at all." One day as she was praying, and being prayed over, her five-year-old daughter Katy came up to her and handed her a cup filled with dirt, which she took as a sign that the faith she had been practicing was impure. "That was enough for me," Jenny says, convinced at that moment that God had released her to find her own way of worshiping him.

When Jenny thinks back on what she calls "that climate-controlled sanctuary" with its "big Sunday morning dog and pony show," she wonders how she ever could have been a regular churchgoer. "Nine o'clock," she now says, "is no holier or [more] apt to put you in touch with God than any other hour of the day"; and God does not want his believers to be "weak and codependent on a structure or a man to tell us how to think or what to say or to DEFINE WHO WE ARE IN CHRIST." There is, in Jenny's view, something fundamentally wrong with the idea that belief in Christ requires some form of instruction from a person in authority. "Guardian, schoolmaster, put in charge, supervision . . . these are all things of the old law," another believer, Leta van Duin, writes on-line. "But . . . this is not what leadership is supposed to be now. Fatherly leadership is hard to come by. Don't be a policeman."

Jenny Orr and Leta van Duin are adherents of the house-church movement (both write for the Web's Home Church Connection). Like the early Christians of the New Testament, they believe they should worship in the sanctuary of their homes. Although home churching has not been widely studied by social scientists, it appears to have a strong appeal to certain kinds of religious believers for whom authenticity of experience is more important than congregational affiliation, which they are likely to dismiss as mere "churchianity." As Roger Upton, a former Southern Baptist pastor, explains in Grace Abounding, his Web site devoted to the house-church movement, "there simply is no scriptural basis for the church meeting in a specially constructed religious building." Institutions corrupt, Roger believes, and the church, understood bureaucratically, can corrupt absolutely.

The house-church movement aims to practice what another contributor to Home Church Connection, Glenn Heller, calls "relational Christianity" rather than "accomplishment Christianity." In his view, "It is more important to focus on the being than on the doing" and "The doing will come without any effort if one learns the being." Like many people attracted to the ecology movement, Glenn maintains that simpler is better: "I've found the Lord is so good and guiding and directing in such a natural way with minimum effort on our part. Don't be in a hurry like the rest of the world."

House churchers resemble homeschoolers, many of whom are also conservative Christians distrustful of public worlds from which they feel alienated. They search for experience uncontaminated by what they see as the inevitable compromises that have to be made when public life is shared with people whom one knows little and trusts even less. In their down-to-earth forms of religious expression, representing the ultimate in Protestant individualism, one can observe echoes of both the frontier of the rugged West and the transcendentalism of the effete East. House churchers treat the more evangelical Protestant churches the way Luther treated Catholics, denouncing them as being more interested in protecting their privileges than in expressing their piety. Jesus, after all, reached out to all who would follow him without, in the words of one house churcher, "pyramid structures, programs, gimmicks, marketing, psychology, advertising, titles, schedules, [and] meetings."

So deep can this anti-institutionalism run that some house churchers worry about the potential for corruption of their own movement. "It seems that in all our newfound freedom in Christ to be a priesthood of believers," says the woman who maintains the Home Church Connection site, Tracey Amino, "there are those who by stealth are attempting to put us into bondage again." House churches have to be wary, Tracey says, of "the Old Testament prophet trying to operate and function within the New Testament church," by which she means those who "end up breaking fellowship over something as trivial as a small point of doctrine that you don't happen to agree with." Tracey is particularly suspicious of "church planters," people trained by one faction of the movement to go out and help start new house churches. She warns fellow believers that the group's efforts at "control and manipulation" have "caused a tremendous amount of offense and division within the house-church community."

Still, compared to other countries, especially those in Western Europe, the United States remains a nation of churchgoers hostile to nonbelievers and reluctant to join an antichurch movement, however faithful its adherents may be to God. A very small movement, the house churchers are unlikely to dissuade most churchgoing Americans from their regular Sunday habits. But the wariness that this movement manifests toward established institutions nonetheless constitutes a subcurrent in American religious practice to which nearly all congregations have to be responsive. Distrustful individuals can affect religious institutions even if they never leave. The anti-institutionalism latent in American culture influences a surprising number of churches in the United States as they struggle to retain members.

Small-group prayer, Oakbrook Evangelical Free Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 2002. By Kim BahrOne example is provided by home fellowship. Some churches encourage Bible study and spiritual discussion outside the church, if not explicitly to discourage house churching, then certainly to answer a widespread desire for forms of religious expression more personal and informal than a church setting can provide. One such home-fellowship group, studied by sociologist Matthew Lawson, is associated with the Hamden Assembly of God Church, outside Philadelphia. Although Assembly of God churches are usually classified as conservative--as most believers in this congregation would classify themselves--the members of this church have developed a suspicion of leadership resembling the counterculture movements of the 1960s. Like the educational reformers of those years who insisted that teachers ought to shed their pedagogical authority, Hamden's Pastor Vince goes to great lengths to assure those who gather to hear his sermons that his words are not the final word. "Your pathway in following Christ will be different from my pathway," he tells the home-fellowship group, as if his leadership role were purely advisory.

Formally, the church's activities are organized around Sunday morning worship, and the evening study sessions are meant to flesh out what takes place there. But Pastor Vince seems to suggest the opposite: Home fellowship, he says at one point, "is not a part of the church, it is the church." And it is clear that such anti-institutional talk pleases many of Hamden's parishioners. Paul and Carla Christianson, active in the home-fellowship group, are among them. Catholics by birth--as in other conservative Protestant churches, there are a large number of former Catholics in this one--they came to detest the liberalism of their parish and switched to a fundamentalist Protestant church. There they discovered how rigid and doctrinaire a Baptist church can be, and chafing at the authoritarianism of its preacher, they switched out of that church as well. They love Pastor Vince because, they say, he "is not one who has the authority thing."

Conservative Christians are not the only religious believers attracted to nonchurch settings; liberal Jews can be as well. Jews have always worshiped at home; it is the place where the Sabbath candles are lit and the prayers are chanted. But throughout the 20th century, Jewish leaders tried to create large synagogue centers--the "shul with a pool," in the words of one historian--where, as Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, put it, Jews "might find a far wider scope for expression and enjoyment than is possible in the home." Yet despite this effort to bring faith into institutions, recent developments in Judaism have taken faith back out of them. Decreasing rates of attendance testify to the limited success of the synagogue-center movement. And so do various efforts, inspired by the upheavals of the 1960s, to create havurot (singular: havurah)--the Jewish equivalent of home-fellowship worship, which takes its origins from the Hebrew word for a group of friends. Part countercultural, part feminist, part communitarian, havurot reproduce the exodus from Egypt, as participants leave behind the formal trappings of synagogue membership in favor of a more immediate and direct spirituality. An example is offered by Kelton Minyan, a since-disbanded prayer group in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Distrustful of rabbinical authority, the group designated a variety of people to lead the prayer services at different times. The psalms to be read and the melodies to be sung were chosen based more on personal preferences than on the rules of the liturgy. And most of the group's members rejected any interpretation of prayer emphasizing that Jews were somehow a "chosen people" different from others. The left-wing Jews attracted to Kelton Minyan would no doubt have felt out of place in Pastor Vince's Assembly of God Church, yet underlying both was a common feeling of dissatisfaction with top-down forms of religious organization.

Small-group worship, intimate and personal as it may be, cannot do away with the institutional priorities of congregations entirely. Thus Kelton Minyan, as it began to attract new members, became institutionalized by moving into the religious center of a nearby university.

The experience of a Portland, Oregon, havurah studied by sociologist Robert Liebman in the early 1990s is even more indicative of the inevitable pressures toward institutionalization that can grow in even the most anti-institutional environments. Wanting at least some spiritual direction, the Portland group had advertised for a new rabbi in 1987. But afraid to use the c word (for congregation), havurah members insisted that the ad emphasize a teacher and resource person, not a religious leader, bringing forth a stinging letter of rebuke from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform denomination. An appropriate rabbi was eventually found--causing some of the more anti-institutional members to quit--but the havurah continued to rent space for over a decade, unwilling to take the next step in institutionalization: the acquisition of property. Insisting on its countercultural affinities, the group holds fast today to a system of governance by committee, yet as the havurah grows in size, each member feels less influential and the committees themselves become increasingly oligarchic. "Our institutions haven't necessarily caught up with our size," one member says, trying to capture the frustrations of a group of people who want to worship together and who distrust institutional authority but who find themselves nonetheless in the reluctant role of institution builders.

A havurah Shabbat service, Nyack, New York, 1976. By Bill AronYet even congregations that grow out of revivalist traditions and continue to appeal to the emotional rather than the organizational needs of their flock have not found a way to bypass institutional requirements. Pastor Vince of the Hamden Assembly, for example, is not quite so anti-institutional as his advocacy of home fellowship makes him appear to be. The function of such fellowship, in his view, is not to question the church's teachings but to bring waverers back to the truth; home fellowship is not a seminar and he is not Socrates. Along similar lines, the leadership of the Pentecostally inclined Spirited Church of Muncie, Indiana, recognizes that the enthusiasm encouraged in church will go for naught if it spins off in anarchic directions; as one church document puts it, "An ongoing struggle is in maintaining spiritual balance in the worship services. We allow the Spirit freedom to move and work in our midst, and yet maintain an orderly service, full of integrity and sincere worship. . . . The key to maintaining spiritual balance in the worship services is in the pastor maintaining control and staying in authority."

But if anti-institutional movements within churches cannot fully do away with organization, even the most organized churches cannot ignore the anti-institutional inclinations of their members. The best example is provided by the experience of many U.S. Catholics. Faithful Catholics are expected not only to belong to a particular parish and to participate actively in the Catholic subculture of schools, charities, and voluntary associations, but also to respect the authority embodied in a series of institutions ranging from the distant hierarchy to the local bishop. Yet in the United States, practicing Catholics have not proved immune to the anti-institutionalism existing everywhere around them.

Catholics seek personalized forms of worship in many ways. Some 4 percent of Catholics claim to be charismatic, for instance, and 23 percent of Catholic parishes have charismatic renewal groups. What's more, about one in 20 Catholics now attends some form of small-group worship--a small percentage, to be sure, but a growing one that has begun to attract the attention of Church leaders. Catholics who participate in small groups like them because they lack the sense of symbolic grandeur often attributed to Catholic worship. "There's a set of rules that we established from the beginning," as one member of a Catholic small group explains. "No one is to preach and no one is to teach. We're only there to share, and whatever's said is acceptable." Bernard Lee, SM, the assistant chancellor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, is the leading expert on small-group worship among Catholics, and like many religious leaders he professes to be encouraged by the seriousness of purpose such groups represent; they are, he writes, "genuine Christian communities with churchhood about them." Still, Fr. Lee may be trying to put the best face on a movement that will inevitably lead Catholics to question the institutional nature of their very institutional faith. While participation in small groups reinvigorates the faith of many Catholics, Lee notes there is a tendency for their members, in coming to trust themselves more, to "become more critical of the institutional Church."

Younger Catholics, moreover, are less likely to respect the institutional prerogatives of the Church than are previous generations. Mary Mallozzi, for example, is the kind of Catholic for whom the Church ought to be grateful. A cradle Catholic, she was raised in the institutional Church and, as a 30-year-old, remains loyal to it. "Church is a very big thing to me," Mary tells an interviewer in Young Adult Catholics, by sociologist Dean Hoge et al. "I need to belong to a parish that is going to nurture me along and offer me the tools in the areas that I need." Fortunately for her, she found such a parish, where she met her husband, Jim. Both remain active in parish affairs, yet, although Mary regularly attends Mass, she does not believe that she is obligated by her faith to do so. "I hate rules, such as ‘You have to go to Mass,'" she says. "I try to reframe it and say, ‘It's part of our growth as religious people.'" Her Catholic identity is as strong as Catholic identity can be, and she says proudly that "I don't think there is anything that would drive me out of the Church." Yet she will make up her own mind on whether priests should be allowed to marry and whether birth control is permissible.

Among American Catholics between 20 and 40 years old, people like Mary Mallozzi are probably in the minority. Far more typical are individuals like Robert Wilkes, a 27-year-old graduate student. Asked in Young Adult Catholics whether he will be a lifelong Catholic, Robert, who has no interest in switching to any other religion, answers "definitely." But he does not view himself as a lifelong parishioner. He once found a parish in which he felt comfortable, particularly because the priest encouraged lay participation and an active concern with social justice. When the local bishop stepped in and stopped any experimentation, Robert dropped out and decided to keep his faith to himself, rather than find another parish. Unlike Catholics who retain only an ethnic identity with the Church, Robert is a believer, who considers himself loyal in his own way. He would like to see the Catholic Church become more like Protestant churches by altering what to him is an outdated hierarchical and authoritarian organization. And his kind of Catholicism may well come to represent the future. The decision by the Vatican in December 2002 to accept the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, after priests and faithful Catholics in the Boston area demanded it, suggests that the days of unquestioned obedience are over for American Catholics.

These examples of alternative institutionalism on the part of believers from a variety of religious traditions suggest that Americans often want different rewards from their religious practice, and not all congregations (or parishes, synagogues, mosques, and temples) can provide them. On the one hand, Americans are attracted to faith because it brings them in touch with God's realm, a spiritual environment before which human beings stand in awe. On the other hand, they often find in their religious practice balm for the injured self, as church becomes a place in which believers pray for a loved one's cancer cure, join a support group for the strength to face a job layoff, or attend services for a sense of neighborly solidarity. Both realms--the Supreme and the self-interested--can be seen as corrupted by institutional church requirements. The realm of God is too pure and powerful to neccesitate ordinary tasks of committee meetings or market analysis. And the realm of the self is too subjective to be equated with church attendance or putting coins on a collection plate. As much as Americans tend to think of their local congregation as the one religious institution in which they have the greatest trust, the ways they practice their religion make it difficult for the local congregation to meet its own institutional needs.

The religious life of the American people--seeking but not always finding, impatient for results, anxious for authenticity, ever sensitive to hypocrisy--may not yet have experienced the turbulence of professional sports, where free agents search around for the team that will offer the best contract, or of the cut-your-own-best-deal retirement plans that increasingly characterize American business firms. But it does seem to be heading in that direction.

This American propensity to reshape institutions to satisfy personal needs, while perhaps appropriate to a service economy, seems to many observers to be out of place when matters of ultimate meaning are at issue. And there is certainly cause for concern. Denominational officials ought to worry about the unwillingness of believers to identify themselves with the histories and traditions that help to structure belief. Congregations can and do offer a sense of ritual observance and participation in a collective endeavor that cannot easily be found in the home, or even in the stadium. If the development of long-term attachments with other people were to become more difficult in religious institutions, as it already has in secular ones, not only would fellowship be lost but also the kind of sensibility that reminds individuals that there exist duties and obligations to traditions and forces more permanent than their immediate wants and needs.

Still, there is one potential benefit to a form of faith that puts more emphasis on being than on belonging. "Denominationalism is the opposite of sectarianism," the historian Winthrop Hudson once observed, for a sect "claims the authority of Christ for itself alone," while a denomination implies that the group so formed "is but one member, called or denominated by a particular name, of a larger group--the Church--to which all denominations belong." Hudson's is an idealistic view that, alas, has little correspondence with reality. Denominations and congregations were strongest in this country when Americans cared so much about the specifics of their faith that they formed ever more tightly bound communities hostile to people whose faith was different from their own. Against a historical pattern characterized by narrow sects--each persuaded that it had a monopoly on the truth--and parochial congregations that cared little for those outside the group, there is something to be said in favor of religious switching and transient congregational loyalties. In post-1960s America, institutions have to earn respect.

 

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His essay is drawn from The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (© 2003, Alan Wolfe), by permission of Free Press, Simon & Schuster.

 

Photos (from top):

 

Catholic charismatics, New York City, 1992. By Lee Romero/ New York Times

 

Small-group prayer, Oakbrook Evangelical Free Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 2002. By Kim Bahr

 

A havurah Shabbat service, Nyack, New York, 1976. By Bill Aron

 

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