Image via WikipediaI recently returned from several days meeting in Miami Beach with members of the Congregational Scholars Team, an outstanding group who focus on working on the conceptual and practical problems of understanding congregations. These are all highly respected academics (nearly all have produced "classic" books in their fields) with many years of immersive experiences in various congregations across all faiths.
They are all very nice people too.
With warmer weather and plenty of good restaurants, we met at a Jewish synagogue for much of the day pondering the future of religious gatherings and followed up conversations at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The first day started with everyone sharing updates on their own research, and then moved to a focus on approaches to the study of congregations. Much of our three days together was filled with trying to capture perspectives on emerging dynamics in American religious gatherings. What does it mean to study "congregations"?
We all agreed that the focus on brick-and-mortar buildings and their weekly services is insufficient for tracking the richness of congregational dynamics. For some time now, scholars have been attentive to the broader interactions occurring between parishioners, clergy, and local communities. Even more, scholars are taking into account broader historical contexts that include race, immigration, government subsidies, technological developments, etc. A growing number of sensitivities are finding their way into work on how religious life is shaping in the United States and abroad.
One example is my own discussion on the growing phenomenon of "pub churches" in the US and UK. Pub churches are ways of doing "church" in non-churchly ways. They are not obvious as they are "spiritual conversations" happening in bars, restaurants, and coffeehouses that stress open dialogue and egalitarian structures. As I described these structures, some questioned whether "pub churches" qualify as a congregation at all. Is this what we're studying? And yet, most of us agree that attention to such developments is part of our job as scholars. We are trying to pay attention to how congregational structures are constantly negotiated in response to societal developments and, often, as a critique to mainstream religion.
The field of congregational studies remains wide open. It is not intended to be a narrow focus on events in established buildings or rented warehouses. Congregations implies that face-to-face religious gatherings remain important to religion and are strategic units of measurement. Scholars are not limited to the common sense analysis of such structures as theoretical nuance stretches our analytical skills. Congregational scholars strive to encompass as much of the reality of how people believe, worship, evangelize, and serve through religious structures both new and old. And the careful critique of each other's work is part of the process of pushing each other towards even further depth.
Footnote: The Congregational Team members currently include Nancy Ammerman (Boston University), Larry Mamiya (Vassar College), Bill McKinney (Pacific School of Religion), Omar McRoberts (University of Chicago), James Nieman (Hartford Seminary) Robert Schreiter (Catholic Theological Union), Stephen Warner (University of Illinois, Chicago), and Jack Wertheimer (Jewish Theological Seminary). Special guests with me at this week included Anthea Butler (University of Pennsylvania) and Joyce Ann Mercer (Virginia Theological Seminary).