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An expanding mainline

One of the key social trends in recent years has been the growth, among religious organizations, of more conservative megachurches and the relative decline of moderate (and usually less political) mainline churches.

The trend has been noted for a decade and more in books and endless articles. The evenhanded and dispassionate Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, by Alan Wolfe (a highly recommended title), suggests that one part of this transition has to do with the way some of the new, conservative and large churches operate and they way they interact with their congregations. They give people a sense of individual recognition by undertaking much of their activity in small groups. They offer convenience (burger stops and coffee bars at church are not unknown). They offer entertaining multi-media presentations. They offer help with watching the kids.

None of this is anything a more mainstream church couldn’t do, though many have felt some of these things remove a critical sense of solemnity from the proceedings. But what if a mainstream church, without changing its message, used some of these “marketing” tools – might they, too, grow? (Obviously, the implications here are not religious only – they have significant in the political and social sphere too.)

One partial answer comes in a Seattle Times piece today on the University Presbyterian Church at Seattle, located near the University of Washington. Far from diminishing in recent years, the church’s congregation has grown to about 4,400 today, adding about 500 in just the last seven years.

From the article: “‘It is unusual. It bucks a trend,’ said James Wellman, assistant professor of religion at the UW. The church’s success can be attributed to a combination of factors: its longtime emphasis on outreach to university students; its focus on developing one-on-one relationships; the numerous small groups, missions and ministries that members can become involved in; sizable staff and resources; strong preaching; and a tradition of not too much politicking at the pulpit. ‘It just hits on so many of the right buttons that the synthesis of the total is greater than the parts,’ Wellman said.”

It’s a case study that’s bound to be watched, which at some point may make it ever less an anomaly.

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