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Congregationalism in American Churches: A Reaction by R. Stephen Warner

The focus of this site is the study of congregations, understood in the most basic sense as local religious assemblies. But concepts of “the congregation,” “congregational,” and “congregationalism” have both more precise and more contested meanings.

As a form of “church polity,” congregationalism holds the local religious assembly to be the source of earthy ecclesiastical authority. The local congregation governs and supports itself, defining who can be a member, raising the revenue it needs, owning the property it occupies, and calling people of its choice to preach. This form of religious organization stands in contrast to conceptions of the church that locate these functions of governance in bishops (episcopal polity) and/or regional and national councils of certified elders (presbyterian polity). Bloody wars used to be fought over these ideas of religious authority.

Protestant Christian churches in the U.S. have melded, merged, and especially muted these historically antagonistic conceptions. Over the past several generations in the U.S., the once-insistently congregational Baptist tradition became more organized on a national basis and, recently in the Southern Baptist Convention, more top-down in authoritative rulings. A the same time, the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches loosened their centralized authority systems to allow much more local, and even congregational, autonomy. Congregational churches still exist, especially in the burgeoning ranks of “non-denominational” churches, and the United Methodist and Roman Catholic churches persist as centrally organized, hierarchically governed bodies. Yet for the most part, congregationalism, presbyterianism, and episcopalianism have become less distinct and less prevalent as canonical, de jure, forms of church polity.

Nonetheless, in American popular imagination, the congregational ideal retains great sway. Because direct governmental financial support of religious institutions is ruled out by the separation of church and state, churches had to raise their own funds and arrange for the maintenance of their properties and programs. The resulting profusion of religious volunteerism in American civil society easily suggested to those millions of volunteers–bricklayers, cooks, quilters, Sunday school teachers, ushers, deacons, and tithers–that the church they support belongs to them. Pastors in all American denominations often find themselves in the position of reminding their lay councils that the church belongs to God.

Thus a popular spirit of “de-facto congregationalism” pervades U.S. Protestant churches. A local congregation may choose a hymnal or Sunday school curriculum produced by an independent publishers over the one prescribed by their denomination. They may feel entitled to call clergy of their own liking, in defiance of, or skirting on the edge of, the rules set forth by the bishop, synod, or presbytery. They may divert their financial support away from the denomination toward a parachurch agency, toward a social movement organization, or toward some local need.

De-facto congregationalism has liberalizing and conservatizing effects. Over the past forty years, when liberal denominations decided it was time to ordain women, local congregations could take advantage of complicated call procedures to drag their feet on hiring women clergy. In the past twenty years, many liberal congregations tried, and some succeeded, in ordaining gays and lesbians to clergy or governing council status in defiance of denominational proscriptions. When some denominations changed those very proscriptions, other, more conservative congregations pulled out. Given the complex history of property deeds and the decentralization of America’s common law system, they may eventually succeed in taking their property with them. De-facto congregationalism appeals to both sides of current political divides.

Moreover, the spirit of de facto congregationalism is not confined to Protestant churches. It appeals to many American Catholics with respect to their parishes. Not that any parish as a body could easily leave the Church, but that the diocese’s plans to replace a beloved parish pastor, to merge parochial schools, or to close parishes often meet with stiff, sometimes successful, resistance from parishioners organized for the purpose. Moreover, the U.S. Catholic church is being partly reshaped by the appeal of the congregational notion that the local church is an assembly of like-minded believers rather than the faithful who live within diocesan-defined geographical boundaries. So “magnet parishes” that serve one or another constituency within the church–social justice, LGBT-friendly, family-friendly, high liturgical, ethnic–proliferate in U.S. metropolitan dioceses.

So far, this much should be clear. Although it has deep roots in the Puritan strain of American Protestantism, de facto congregationalism is neither confined to Protestant churches nor is it necessarily an expression of the normative ideals of all of them. It defies episcopal and presbyterian norms. Instead, de facto congregationalism is an expression of the religious side of American civic culture.

In the U.S., congregationalism is not solely Christian either. Broadly speaking, American Judaism is organized according to congregational polity, with very high levels of voluntary involvement and a dual authority structure of religious professionals and powerful lay leaders. One of the regular multiple choice questions on my sociology of religion midterm exam (the final is an essay exam) is “which two American religious groups are closest in polity type?” with the correct pair being “Baptists and Jews.” De jure congregationalism is deep at the core of both traditions.

A religious minority in Europe, Jews brought congregational organization with them as immigrants to the U.S. But in a society characterized by both a history of large-scale immigration and the lack of an established church, many other immigrant groups have adopted elements of the American congregational template to serve their religious needs. Depending on the circumstance of the immigrant flow, the migrant group may not include a critical mass of certified religious leaders (ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, etc.) to organize transplanted churches, synagogues, mosques or temples. That relative dearth is often filled by lay people. In American Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim institutions, it is not uncommon to find a dual authority structure of religious professionals, on the one hand, and a powerful lay board, on the other, with an administrator or business officer in the middle. Moreover, whereas the function of the mosque, temple, mandir, or wat, etc., in the home country might have been strictly religious, many immigrant religious communities in the U.S., typically constituting a small minority of the population in their transplanted location, need a community center as well. So many newer, non-Christian religious institutions effectively emulate the multi-function appearance of Christian congregations, with their potlucks, wedding banquets, educational classes, support groups, property committees, and social service programs.

To a great extent, the religious component of civil society in the U.S. is organized along broadly congregational lines. In the historic distance, one of the roots of this pattern is to be found in early Protestant immigration to North America. But the pattern now applies far beyond Protestantism.

For additional detail, see R. Stephen Warner, “The Place of the Congregation in the American Religious Configuration” in New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations, volume II of American Congregations, edited by James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (University of Chicago Press 1994), reprinted as chapter 8 in the author’s A Church of Our Own: Disestablishment and Diversity in American Religion (Rutgers University Press 2005).

R. Stephen Warner
About the Author
Dr. R. Stephen Warner is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Association for the Sociology of Religion. He is a member of the Congregational Studies Team.