Rodney Stark holds a PhD from Berkley in Sociology, taught at the University of Washington for 32 years, and is currently a sociology professor at Baylor University and a Co-Director of their Institute of Studies of Religion. His most well known publication was Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. Here’s an internal write up on Stark’s new book “What Americans Really Believe.”

Let me say a few words regarding impressions I had as a reader before I post the summary. There was much in Stark’s analysis that I simply struggled with. Usual social-scientific analysis has variance in its findings so that one test group or demographic behaves counter to the others but the way he presented the Baylor research that didn’t really show up much. As a reader that made me uncomfortable, because it appeared almost too tidy; it left me wondering how the questions Baylor constructed were presented and if they were clear and particular enough and if there was enough breadth in who they surveyed. But these impressions can of course be unfounded.

That being said I found Stark’s book to be one of the most challenging (in a good way) I’ve read in the past few years of my life as I’ve been delving into “church-trend” type books. For the purpose of my summary and review of Stark’s book I’m going to follow his major divisions rather than chapter divisions and will post some praises and criticisms I made as I read the separate divisions.

Introduction: The Stability and Diversity of American Faith

Americans differ greatly in their religious tastes and convictions, and these differences are remarkably durable.” (pg. 2) Stark’s book was written out of the research findings from Baylor University’s ISR (Institute of Studies of Religion) that was itself in conversation with the two formative social studies of religion put out forty years prior and encapsulated in American Piety.

In his intro chapter Stark agues that instead of denominationalism being on the decline and being a sign for the demise of religion in America he argues that denominationalism has been since 1776 been on the incline in America and is in fact THE catalyst for the growth of the faith in America. The idea being pronounced in the 50’s that Christianity had lost its credibility as people shifted from a literalistic old-time faith to a demythologized modern faith has according to Stark been pointedly defeated in the massive decline of members in liberal congregations and the steady incline of those inside evangelical congregations. Stark’s main sparring partner in the first section of his book is Robert Wuthnow, those in the loop on social-scientific research on religion will see him from page to page.

Contra Wuthnow and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), Stark says that church attendance hasn’t declined in America, its remained constant except for the Roman Catholic church because of the Vatican II’s laxing stance on church attendance as a need for penance. Another myth Stark seeks to rebut is the idea that the young are leaving the church today in far greater number than ever before. Stark says in fact the young have always played a lax role in church attendance and nothing significantly has changed. The stats he gives for those that never attend church are 18-29 year’s old 28%; 30-39 year’s old 25%; and over 40 year’s old 20%.

Stark does say some denominations are loosing their young, but to where or what? “However, clearly some denominations are losing their young adults – not to irreligion, but to other denominations, as evident in the fact that some denominations are rapidly shrinking while others are rapidly growing.” (pg. 11)

Some at this point may say, maybe religion is still present but its influence and universal character is far smaller today. Stark again, says no. In 1776 the total number of American’s in church membership was 17%, in 2005 according to Baylor’s research it was 69%. How did this happen? ie “…the need to compete with other groups for members in order to sustain themselves generates energetic churches that collectively maximize the religious recruitment of a populationperhaps the most remarkable consequence of American denominationalism is to have created such a high level of religious mobilization. The great majority of Americans belong to a church and attend with some frequency.” (pg. 13-14)

If your assumptions were jarred as much as mine where in just the intro, then hold on, because it gets bumpier. I should mention here that Rodney Stark applies “Rational Choice Theory” in his statistics. What is “Rational Choice Theory” all about?

The basic idea of rational choice theory is that patterns of behavior in societies reflect the choices made by individuals as they try to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. In other words, people make decisions about how they should act by comparing the costs and benefits of different courses of action. As a result, patterns of behavior will develop within the society that result from those choices.” wikipedia on Rational Choice Theory

01 Church Going: Labels Matter

As noted above Stark and the Baylor team have statistical sought to demonstrate that church attendance is on the rise and has been so since 1776. But people don’t just challenge attendance in general, they challenge who is attending and why. This chapter takes on those challenges and seeks to give us new perceptions to understand church attendance.

Does economic status influence who attends church? No, unless you’re making over 150,000 a year there’s not notable difference and even then its a 7% variable. Does education influence church attendance? No. Does gender influence church attendance? Yes, 12% more women than men attend. Does ethnicity influence church attendance? Yes, African Americans are 9% more likely than whites to attend. Does marital status influence church attendance? Yes, widows are the highest 53%, then married 44%, then divorced 21%, and then singles 10%. Does age influence church attendance? Yes, as previously noted in the intro. Does politics influence attendance? Yes. Does region influence church attendance? Yes, the South has 45%, the Midwest has 41%, the West has 33%, and the North East has 32%.

Stark admits that there are other influence to church attendance but in the end the largest factor is what denominationalism has done sociologically in America. Which takes us to the next chapter…

02 Church Growth: Competing for Members

How many people do you think switch denominations in their lifetime??????

Try 44%, yes 44% – staggering isn’t it. Why do they switch? Well many people say because the church is just another consumable item in people’s lives and they’re always looking for the morally easier one to belong in. But Stark says that simply isn’t so because if that were so Liberal churches would be on the rise instead of the decline. Stark says, “Americans mostly change churches in search of a deeper, more compelling faith.” (pg. 21) “Why do so many people change churches, and why do most of them favor the more demanding denominations? Because American pluralism forces denominations to compete for members, and the more demanding denominations are far more effective competitors. Put another way, religious switching reflects the weeding out of ineffective religious denominations.” (pg. 23, fyi I know this sounds cold and calculated – keep in mind the genre of his book)

Who is winning the denominationalism war? The conservatives, not the liberals. Why? Stark says conservatives work harder at attracting and holding members by inspiring them to witness to others. Most church growth is the work of rank-and-file members bringing in new members. What other factors influence denominational growth by witnessing? Gender: no noticeable difference. Ethnicity: African Americans 27% more likely than White Americans to witness. Region: Southerns are the most likely to witness. Age: no variance. Politics: no variance. Education: those who didn’t attend or did attend college were likely to witness. Those who attended grade school were not.

Religious pluralism in the shape of denominationalism is a good thing. “If pluralism greatly increases the general level of religiousness by satisfying the diverse religious tastes of the public, it has two other consequences. It strengthens religious freedom and it promotes religious civility.” (pg. 27) So where does intolerance come from? Stark says not from the religious but from the irreligious.

03 Strict Churches: The Reasons for their Popularity

Why are stricter, more conservative churches growing, doesn’t that defy economic principles that low cost commodities flourish? “Many of the more “expensive” religious options yield such superior benefits that they are, for most people, the better buy. That is, strict churches grow because they give greater satisfaction to their members.” (pg. 29) What are strict churches? Those that exist in the air of high tension with their surroundings on a host of moral, political, and cultural issues. Soft churches with low tensions are those that exist with great accomodation to their surroundings.

How do the two compare within areas of church participation? Attends weekly or more often: high tension churches 61%, low tension churches 20%. Attended Bible study or Sunday school during the past month: high tension churches 57%, low tension churches 18%. Attended a church social event during the past month: high tension churches 60%, low tension churches 43%. Attended choir practice or other musical programs during the past month: high tension churches 20%, low tension churches 10%.

In addition to having much more participation, high tension strict churches also have members whose friends are more likely to attend their churches; and high tension strict church members tithe better than low tension church members. Who witnesses more: again the high tension church members witness about twice as much as low tension church members to both their friends and to strangers. In sum, Stark says,
“…strict churches are strong because groups that ask more from their members get more from them, which provides them with the resources to provide a more satisfying religious “product.”” (pg. 36)

04 The “Scattered” Church: Traditional Congregations are Not Going Away

What about churches that are inward focused, do they grow? And what about all the rise in non-profit para-church groups, do they help the church grow? Stark’s answers are yes, and yes. This was very counter-intuitive for me as a reader but Stark says the statistics show that people in denominations who attend outside events are more likely to attend inside events in their church communities. And those who are in churches who are inward focused and have several events for their people are actually more likely to have intimate ties with the church and to invite friends into those ties, as well as volunteer to push them forward.

Stark says the Baylor ISR findings confirm what many have thought but were unable to demonstrate; “…scattered activities outside the gathered church not only may benefit those receiving the outreach, but will usually encourage and strengthen the commitment of those providing the outreach.” (pg. 44)

05 Megachurches: Supersizing the Faith

Are megachurches inauthentic, consumeristic, un-intimate places of worship that water down the Christian faith? Stark says the Baylor research says no. But before we get to the why we need to stop off at the what’s; what constitutes a small church and what constitutes a megachurch? Stark says small churches consist of less than 100 and megachurches consist of more than 1000; now I should mention here that his standards are a bit off by popular measures. It used to be that megachurches had to be more than 1000 but the standard I see again and again in literature today is 3000 and above. That aside now we know who he’s talking about.

Do megachurches sustain an easy, comfortable faith, and soft-pedal sin and punishment? Stark says no, in fact the Baylor research puts megachurch members out on top, with higher percentages than small churches (in areas like eternity, heaven, hell, sin, and divine rewards). Well what about personal commitments, are megachurches entertainment driven or commitment driven? Here’s a spattering of stats on that – Attend services weekly or more often: megachurches 46%, small churches 39%. Tithe: megachurches 46%, small churches 36%. Pray at least once a day or more often: megachurches 60%, small churches 61%. Read the Bible daily: 33%, small churches 32%. Attend a Bible-study group: megachurches 52%, 43%. (Now one thing I wondered while seeing these stats was whether “preformance spirituality” had a play in how people answer rather than an honest answer, but that is not something we can discern).

What about intimacy inside megachurches? Actually Stark says the Baylor research showed that they are more intimate. 41% of megachurch members have half or more of their friends in their churches whereas only 25% of small church members can say that. And only 12% of megachurch members say they have no friends whereas 25% of small church members say they have no friends in their communities. And megachurch members are much more likely to witness than small church members (83% vs 52%). “Contrary to the widespread conviction among their critics that the megachurches grow mainly through their ability to gain publicity, their growth appears instead mainly to be the result of their members’ outreach efforts.” (pg. 49) And members inside megachurches are more likely to volunteer than members in small churches (41% vs 34%). What about demographics? Are megachurches as transgenerational as small churches? No they’re not but the precentage margins are as wide as you might think.

Stark closes this chapter on a sarcastic note unfortunately but I guess with all the bitterness aimed at megachurches perhaps its understandable. What’s lost in megachurches is “…the uninspired sound of hymns sung by a few dozen reluctant voices…the perception that the band of faithful is old, small, and getting smaller…the reluctance to spread the Good Tidings to others.” (pg. 51)

Critical Interactions with the Intro & Chapters 01-05

My head was spinning both go arounds (original reading of the material and ciphering for this overview). There was a lot that I benefited from in Starks overview: the diffusing of the megachurch myths, the clarifying of who is actually growing and why, etc. But there was also a lot I had problems with and genuine suspended belief in: that ingrown churches grow, that faith is growing by leaps and bounds in America versus 1776 (part of the issue I had here was with whether or not church membership as a practice was common then, and how nuanced a definition the Baylor researchers used); etc.

As a pastor I also found myself having to go beyond Stark’s research and genre purposes as I read his work, which isn’t a criticism on him because he wasn’t setting out to give a theological analysis of the church today, only a social-scientific one in certain areas. Is the church growth Stark analyzed through Rational Choice Theory a healthy and whole way of evaluating the church today? Not along theological lines, for instance: denominationalism isn’t justifiable merely because it produces bodies in seats (and I’m pretty sure Stark wouldn’t say it is either; his purpose was to carefully record what is rather than say what should be); another exampel was intimacy inside megachurches, intimacy can’t be defined merely by whether or not I have all my friends in a room with me there is a spiritual and pastoral care that has to be a component for it to be authentic, etc.

In sum, I was really challenged by Stark but also left with questions concerning just how nuanced his questions where for his subjects and a bit put off by some of his more sarcastic posturing. I’m anxious to see where this all goes. Sorry about the length of this post…