As a former minister, I understand the attempt by churches to immerse their congregants into the life of the church. The more that someone is committed to the programs, worship services, Bible studies, small groups, and lay leadership, the more likely they will contribute monetarily, attend Sunday morning services, and volunteer as leaders in these programs. Also, the assumption is that if a devotee is a dedicated participant in the church life, then they are less likely to stray or forsake their religious beliefs/identity in the future. [Subsequently, many equate church immersion with dedication to God, but not many like to openly discuss this since it seems to offer a works-based theology.]
However, in the United States, religious organizations are very homogenous institutions in regard to race, economic status, and educational attainment. Thus, most religious devotees in the United States attend churches with others who look, maintain similar employment, and think like them.
In an ever increasing diverse United States, I suggest that church immersion might be a positive method for church leaders to gauge religiosity and maintain membership, but unintentionally could have negative ramifications for our civil society. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone proves that for many within churches, devotees only volunteer at the church and interact with others outside of their own religious affiliation. If these devotees do interact outside of their religious community, many times it is simply as a volunteer at a local service organization which many times serves to reaffirm negative stereotypes (about people of color, in poverty, or the uneducated). Thus, for devotees immersing themselves into a homogenous religious institution can lead to a lack of developing civic relationships. [Jokingly, I have stated that people in the American south actually ask you “what church do you attend?” as a way of gauging how much they can be your friend.] What does this mean for the future of our society?
As the number of religious “nones” continues to rise, I foresee an attempt by churches to actually increase their efforts to immerse their congregants into the church life. But, I honestly think that the dissipation of the institutional church is inevitable in the American context. In fact, some have suggested that the secularization of America is simply the decline of organized religion (not that devotees are losing religious beliefs, but simply not participating in communal, institutional practices).
Can institutional churches accept the notion that in certain aspects, they might actually be harming society? Or is this question so counter intuitive for church leaders (since they perceive their programs as the ultimate enhancement to society)? How should church leadership respond to this suggestion?