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Two stories back in 2014 had me thinking about that old children’s finger play – “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”  Congregations certainly are “the people.”  But most are also the building and all the “stuff” they accumulate.

Lots of theologians and church critics lament the emphasis on material things, but we human beings express who we are by making things.  And we express who we collectively are by making and building and saving things together.

On Tuesday, an historic African American church in Atlanta was bulldozed to make way for a new football stadium (surely there’s at least one good sermon in that metaphor!).  Standing in southwest Atlanta since 1879, Friendship Baptist was full of history – playing a role in the establishment of Morehouse and Spellman Colleges, among other things.  It was also full of individual stories of births and deaths and baptisms and marriages. (more…)

In every religious community that has life there are people who embody and extend that life. At Boston’s historic Trinity Church, one of those people is Bob Yearwood. His story invites us to think about all the small things that make up the culture of a congregation.

Profiled in the Boston Globe, Yearwood is introduced as the church’s “verger,” a position in the Episcopal Church that includes preparing for the liturgies. That obviously includes making sure that all the physical things are in place, but also that the community itself is ready. One of his fellow parishioners noticed, for example that he carries gold candy coins in his pocket to hand out to children when he portrays one of the kings as he always does at the Epiphany in early January and that every Sunday, kids hang on the end of the pew waiting for a fist bump as he walks by.

The culture of that church includes all the formal garments and objects, but also the candy coins and fist bumps.

This is also a person who is keenly aware of the ecology within which this church sits. Copley Square is both the cultural center of Boston’s Back Bay (across the street from the Boston Public Library) and the space where tourists mingle with the unhoused population. Yearwood staffs a post behind the church’s front desk and is described by the rector as “the intersection of the square outside and the congregation inside.’’ 

Even when a congregation doesn’t sit on an historic square, it needs such human connections to its surroundings.

But Yearwood’s story also reminds us of how important history is. His own story intersects with that of the church in many ways and invites us to think about the people in every congregation whose life stories bear telling. Gathering young and old for a congregational timeline exercise may be an excellent way to ring in any new year.

It’s worth discovering the stories, people, and places that will help you better understand your congregation.

Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor Emerita of Sociology of Religion in the School of Theology and the Sociology Department at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org

In recent years, many people have wondered whether new forms of religious gathering might be replacing traditional gatherings like congregations. As the nonaffiliates – better known as “nones” – become an increasing share of the U.S. population, there is every reason to suggest that many existing congregations may not survive.

But will that simply leave a hole in the social and religious fabric where the congregations used to be? Or will other forms of faith gathering arise in their place?

It may well be the former, but that’s the subject for another day. As for new gatherings, there are indeed interesting things afoot.

A few years ago, a couple of very bright Harvard Divinity School students – Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile — set out to document “How We Gather,” and they have continued to explore the possibilities. They looked at everything from dinner gatherings (like the “pop up shabbat” they described for us) to Crossfit and Soul Cycle, and they identified six themes in the gatherings they observed: community, creativity, social transformation, personal transformation, purpose finding, and accountability. Clearly they were onto something.

They have now expanded their work into “Sacred Design” and aim to help “divinely restless and intellectually curious” leaders to create “community and spiritual infrastructure” for the future.” They speak of translating the wisdom of tradition and the strength of institutions into creative new ways of gathering to support belonging, spiritual growth, and social engagement.

Although they were skeptical at first, they are also now convinced that “meaning-making across distance” — through the use of a variety of internet platforms — is possible. They are joining a burgeoning field of groups old and new that “gather” people virtually for everything from ritual to study to mutual encouragement.

But what does any of this mean for brick and mortar traditional congregations?

First of all, it doesn’t mean that gathering in new ways is sweeping the country and replacing congregations. When the latest wave of the National Congregations Study was being developed, researchers tested out questions designed to discover participation in alternative activities and groups that people thought of as spiritual or religious. This was exploratory research based on a very small sample, but what they discovered was that most people who reported activities beyond attending traditional worship services were also participating in a traditional congregation, and the “alternative” activities were mainly based in congregations. And when those people were taken out of the picture, the mentioned alternative gatherings were mainly one-time events like dinners or educational programs, not ongoing groups that could be considered spiritual homes.

That doesn’t mean these new gatherings are unimportant or nonexistent. It just means that they are still pretty nascent and might or might not grow into something big.

That finding echoes much of what we have learned about the presence of religion on the internet.[1] People may use the internet to find a new congregation or to seek new religious information or to keep up with religious groups they support or to find religious compatriots or even to tune in to the livestream when they can’t get to services in person. But they do not generally substitute online participation for in-person belonging.

But that doesn’t mean that a congregation’s online presence is irrelevant.

All of this suggests that people who care about religious gatherings of any sort would do well to pay attention to both old and new, physical and online. A congregation might benefit by convening a focus group to talk about online connections and the many ways members may be gathering to nurture their faith. Rather than worrying about competition, imagine ways new forms of gathering may deepen the life of the community that already gathers in all the traditional ways, as well.


[1] If you are interested in the latest research, you’ll find lots of interesting reading in Religion Online: How Digital Technology Is Changing the Way We Worship and Pray [2 Volumes], edited by August E. Grant, Daniel A. Stout, Chiung Hwang Chen, and Amanda F. C. Sturgill. (Santa Barbara: Praeger, ABC-CLIO, 2019).

Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor Emerita of Sociology of Religion in the School of Theology and the Sociology Department at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org

Many students of congregational life focus their attention on religious gatherings in the city. It’s where the action is! Where there are exciting challenges and new opportunities. Where your innovations will get noticed and rewarded.

But what about the thousands of gatherings in tiny places that we imagine are doomed to nothing but decline? Pastor Brad Roth* has been thinking about those places and what it means to turn aside from the career ladder to stay — to abide — in such a place.

He and other pastors he has met have made a commitment to their rural parishes, even when the usual markers of “success” are unlikely to be present. They may have to serve multiple congregations or have another job. They may creatively find partners and new places to meet people. They may host unlikely groups in their buildings. Theirs is fundamentally a theological commitment. They want to be part of God’s work in a given place and to communicate hope by staying there.

I would add that it is a commitment to deep engagement in learning — studying — the culture and ecology of these community gatherings. Instead of traversing familiar roads on autopilot, do an intentional driving tour. Stop and do some strategic interviews along the way. Maybe even consider partnering with a nearby college to do a survey.

Not every rural community is dying, of course, but many are facing unprecedented population decline and economic hardship. Community infrastructure has often crumbled — schools, post offices, banks, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, are gone. A tiny congregation may be all that is left as a gathering space. But a patient and thorough inventory of the community’s social and economic resources will be essential.  Where are the needs, and what resources are available – both within the community and beyond?

Sometimes those needs are hiding in plain sight, but nobody wants to name them. Professor Michael Pasquier, at Louisiana State University, studies religion and the environment in Coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta, where chemical pollution and environmental degradation are literally destroying communities and lives. Sometimes, he found, it is church leaders from small African American communities who are the lonely voices speaking out, sometimes aided by national church organizations. They face formidable opposition, but they are a reminder that sometimes those with the least power have the keenest vision. When you decide to learn more about your community, pay attention to these often-hidden voices.

*See his article in Christian Century, August 15, 2018, “Pastors who stay”

Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor Emerita of Sociology of Religion in the School of Theology and the Sociology Department at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org

“Church should not be another place of struggle. Like school can be a struggle, or going to the store can be a struggle, or getting along with your family can be a struggle, but church should not be a place where you struggle. I think the vast majority of people whose kids are on spectrum are not in church because it is another place of struggle.” This quote from a mother I’ll call Catherine, vividly paints the experiences of families of children with autism spectrum disorder.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, currently 1 in 59 American children has autism spectrum disorder. Numerous studies have documented the many stresses that can be experienced by families of children with ASD, including problems with controlling their children’s behavior, trying to get needed services for their children, enduring financial impacts, and facing stigma.

Families also face challenges finding a religious community where they are welcome. A 2018 statistical analysis found that children with disabilities that limit communication and social integration, such as ASD, are much more likely to never attend religious services even though having physical disabilities had almost no impact on religious service attendance.*

Over the past several years, my collaborators and I have been exploring all these issues with the people most directly affected. We have interviewed over seventy people, primarily parents of children with autism spectrum disorder but also ASD support professionals and medical professionals. Given the stressors parents can encounter, is religion a source of support or just another source of stress?

We have had long conversations with parents about their experiences. Like previous survey data would suggest, more had negative experiences overall in trying to participate in congregations although we did find evidence of positive experiences as well. Negative experiences in congregations arose primarily when parents perceived either congregation leaders or fellow congregants to be unwelcoming. Parents said they felt unwelcome due to interactions with religious leaders, stares from other congregants or comments about their child’s behavior.

Like other expressions of a congregation’s culture, the signs of unwelcome are often subtle. Said one mother who has since stopped attending religious services altogether, “There was a group of women that would stare… I didn’t see anybody who even looks friendly at church…if you are in church and your kid makes noise, the first three rows in front of you turn and look.”

Some parents we spoke with did have praise for their congregation’s support, and others had pushed hard to help make their congregations more inclusive. One father said, “With our new Rabbi we pushed really hard…This took a lot of re-education in the community…We have been very active and pushing for a community to adopt a statement on inclusion.” Some also felt acceptance and support in a new congregation after leaving a previous one which had been unaccepting. Overall, however, parents’ experiences were decidedly mixed.

It wasn’t just the experience in worship services that expressed a culture of welcome or unwelcome. It was also the lack of inclusive materials and inappropriate age placement of children in religious education classes. Parents told us about social isolation of their children in religious education classes (“We would find Ben sitting at a group table coloring. No one would want to sit with Ben; he was socially ostracized”) and age-inappropriate class placement (“They were going to keep Collin down and put him in a toddler class … I said, ‘Why did you put him in a toddler class; he is not a toddler?’”) My colleague Victoria Aramini and I have written more about how congregations can play a more positive role in the religious development of children and youth with ASD in the journal Religions.

Congregation-based support is an important resource for many Americans who face challenges in their lives, but it remains problematic for too many families of children with autism spectrum disorder. Given the large number of children impacted with ASD, much work remains to be done. Congregations that hope to become more welcoming can find help, however. One good place to start is “Autism and Faith: A Journey Into Community”.  Other excellent resources can be found on Autism Speaks’ “Your Religious Community” page.

Stepping back to observe your own congregation’s values, activities and surroundings may be just as important. Are there parents you might interview? Might someone be a participant observer in worship or religious education, with an eye toward places that need to change? Or might you make contact with other support services to work together? Being part of a congregation shouldn’t be so hard.

*You can read more about Andrew Whitehead’s study and its implications for congregations here.

About the author: Susan Crawford Sullivan is Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross. She is the author of Living faith: Everyday religion and mothers in poverty (University of Chicago Press, 2011).