Book | Congregation and Community by Nancy Ammerman

9780813523354_p0_v1_s260x420Ammerman, Nancy Tatom, and Arthur Emery Farnsley. Congregation & Community. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

The Author

Dr. Nancy Ammerman has spent much of the last decade studying American congregations. Her most recent book, Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and their Partners (University of California Press, 2005), describes the common patterns that shape the work of American’s diverse communities of faith. Her 1997 book, Congregation and Community, tells the stories of twenty-three congregations that encountered various forms of neighborhood change in communities around the country. Along with a team of others, she edited and contributed to Studying Congregations: A New Handbook, published in 1998 by Abingdon. Prior to her work on congregations, she wrote extensively on conservative religious movements, including Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World, a study of an independent Baptist church in New England, and Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, which received the 1992 Distinguished Book award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

ammermanNancy has also been active in attempting to educate a larger public audience about American religion. In 1993, she served on the panel of experts convened by the U. S. Departments of Justice and Treasury to make recommendations in light of the government’s confrontation with the Branch Davidians at Waco. In 1995, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the same subject, and in 1997 she lectured in Israel under sponsorship of the U. S. State Department.

Prof. Ammerman’s current research, funded by the Templeton Foundation, is the “Spiritual Narratives in Everyday Life” project. Begun in the summer of 2006, it is exploring whether and how religious belief and action are present in the stories people tell about their everyday lives. Participants in Boston and Atlanta were selected to represent a cross-section of religious traditions (as well as non-religious people). They participated in an initial oral religious life history interview, and researchers observed their religious communities (for those involved in a church or synagogue). They also kept an oral diary for two one-week periods and photographed important places in their lives. Their stories about those places proved critical to understanding how religion is present in these particular modern lives.

From the Back Cover

Change- in population, economy, and culture-is sweeping through American communities. Corner groceries are stocking new foods. New roads are being built and Main Streets abandoned. Schools have come and gone, and old friends move away as strangers arrive. But in every community, no matter how volatile, religious institutions provide for their members places of moral guidance and spiritual nurture, civic participation, and identity.

How do congregations react to significant community change? Why do some religious institutions decline in the face of racial integration while others adapt and grow? How do congregations make sense of economic distress? Do they provide havens from community upheaval or vehicles for change? Congregation and Community is the most comprehensive study to date of congregations in the face of community transformation. Nancy Ammerman and her colleagues include stories of over twenty congregations in nine communities from across the nation, communities with new immigrant populations, growing groups of gays and lesbians, rapid suburbanization, and economic dislocations.

With almost half of the nation’s population attending religious services each week, it is impossible to understand change in American society without a close look at congregations. Congregation and Community will exist as a standard resource for years to come, and clergy, academics, and general readers will benefit from its insights.

Review by Van Gelder

In this century, an established tradition of the sociological study of congregations began especially with the work of H Paul Douglass in the 1920s This work has continued through the past four decades in the research of such scholars as Peter Berger, Jackson Carroll, Carl Dudley, Roger Finke, Kirk Hadaway, Dean Hoge, Wade Clark Roof, David Roozen, Rodney Stark, and Robert Wuthnow. Most studies in this tradition indicate the strong influence of “contextual factors” over “institutional factors” in shaping the fortunes of congregations In other words, congregations tend to live or die primarily in relationship to the compatibility between their present membership and a substantial proportion of residents in the community where they are located

Nancy Ammerman, and the cadre of researches who joined her in a Lilly-funded study in the early 1990s, sought to test this established thesis in light of the dynamic changes that have cascaded through our culture and local communities over the past 20 years Careful attention was given to developing a database of congregations that represented diversities of region, urban location, size, denomination, ethnicity, and lifestyle Nine communities across the country were selected and 23 intensive case studies were conducted and evaluated Significant social-contextual change in the communities they served was the factor common to all congregations selected

The core conclusion of this study makes this volume ground-breaking in the field of congregational studies “With no governmental regulation or subsidy to keep outmoded religious institutions in place, the social processes of community formation govern the rise and fall of congregations, and the spiritual energies generated in congregations help to shape the social structures of communities” (2-3) Thus in the face of dramatic contextual change, some characteristics often referred to as “institutional factors” can function as significant independent variables in determining congregational survival and success Furthermore, it was found that these characteristics may function within congregations across a wide spectrum of theological orientation

The researchers identified three primary patterns of congregational response to substantial social-contextual change The first is “relocating,” carried out either through physically moving the congregation to a new setting or through establishing a focused niche of ministry The second is “adaptation,” carried out either through intentionally intégrâting diverse ethnic or lifestyle population groups or through creating new internal structures for ministry The third is “innovation,” implemented through birthing a new style of ministry or through rebirthing the congregation as a whole.[1]

On Conflict

“Perhaps most striking in the processes of change we have observed is the association of conflict with change. Most congregations are accustomed to thinking about conflict as a sign of distress, perhaps even as a sign that they are drifting from their proper mission. Quite the contrary. Congregations that systematically avoid conflict are also very likely to avoid changing. So long as they have a stable constituent environment, that may be perfectly healthy. But in any situation that disrupts the congregation’s relationship to its constituents, calling into question its location, its structures, and its ministries, conflict is nearly inevitable. Part of the need for a strong pastor and educationally skilled participants is the need for persons willing and able to engage in debate and conflict. In the larger scheme, the rich and diverse ecology of congregations in a community makes division within a given congregation less onerous, perhaps even welcome.

“Adaptation can take many forms, but it is not an easy process. It requires determined effort at finding resources, establishing new partnerships, and developing new leaders, new programs, and new ideas, and often involved fighting among people who love each other.”[2]

 

Conclusions

  • Congregations and Modern Community Life: “religious congregations, including the small groups they house and sponsor, are then a space of sociability where real commitments are made (even if temporary and partial) and where persons are thereby formed and transformed.”[3]
  • Congregations as Particularist Spaces of Sociability: “Particularity clearly exists among us. Whether by ethnicity, gender, or religious tradition, various collectivities are declaring and celebrating their difference. While such differences can divide and alienate people no less than unwarranted universalisms can silence the voices of outsider, they need not…Brueggemann argues that people of faith need to be bilingual, an argument that might be applied beyond faith communities. Any community that wishes to sustain itself must have space (behind the wall) and language for telling its own primal narrative and imagining its own view of the future. Such views and practices need not be dysfunctional…they are essential for a society in which critical perspectives can be brought to bear on the issues that confront us.”[4]
  • Congregations as Connected Communities: “Congregations not only prevent congregational isolation, they also are the web of relationships out of which community structure is created and maintained. Congregations are a significant part of that web. The social order is made up of both informal ties and formalized organizations, of norms and practices that make the production of goods and the delivery of services possible. While congregations are rarely in the business of producing material goods, they are central to the structures that deliver services, facilitate informal ties, and inculcate norms of sociability. In short, congregations are key institutions in local social structures and beyond.”[5]
  • Congregations as Generators of Social Capital: “Congregations and other voluntary organizations, then, generate the basic social capital of association, along with the civic capital of communication and organizational skills…so the material resources of congregations and other voluntary organizations provide an infrastructure for doing the work of the community, an infrastructure often most visible in times of crisis.”[6]
  • The Moral and Spiritual Capital of Congregational Life: “The ideas and ways of life nurtured in congregations can shape other aspects of everyday life in both direct and indirect ways. In congregations, we voice collective grievances, envision solutions, seek divine sanction, gather material goods, build networks, invest time and energy. As an ongoing institutional presence in the community, congregations provide the stability within which cultural traditions are preserved and sometimes created anew.”[7]Ammerman, Nancy Tatom, and Arthur Emery Farnsley. Congregation & Community. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.


[1] Craig Van Gelder, “Congregation and Community,” Missiology 28, no. 2 (2000): 224-225.

[2] Nancy Tatom Ammerman and Arthur Emery Farnsley, Congregation & Community (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 344-345.

[3] Ibid.,  354.

[4] Ibid.,  359.

[5] Ibid.,  362.

[6] Ibid.,365-366

[7] Ibid., 370.

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