Winners and Losers in the American Church

The Churching of America

Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776—2005 Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005).


In order to understand American church history, the single most important book I know of is Roger Finke & Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America. Finke & Stark are not historians, but sociologists, which is probably what makes the book so much more insightful than most. The other factor is that Rodney Stark is one of the most compelling writers in our day.

The book does not attempt to give a comprehensive picture of the important developments in the American church. In fact, it focuses primarily on one question: Why, over the course of more than 200 years, have some denominations in America emerged as mere shadows of their former glory, while others have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination? As a pastor, this is the question about the church that most interests me, because it offers a strong antidote to many seemingly good ideas for the direction of the church today, and charts a clear path toward tomorrow.

In the first pages of the book, Finke & Stark remark that at the outset of this project they did not intend to rewrite American church history from the ground up. Of course, this most certainly is what they wound up doing. For example, it is popularly believed that our country has never been less Christian than it is today, when, in reality, it is the other way around. In 1776, around 17% of the population belonged to a church, while in 2000 that number had risen to 62% (p. 23). What we often think of as a very religious society in 1776 was more like a wild, frontier society of church monopolies where the clergy was funded through taxes.

In 1776 the three largest denominations (by total adherents) were Congregationalists, Presbyterians, & Episcopalians. By 1850, however, the biggest were far and away the Methodists and Baptists (p. 56). Numerically, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the mainline actually began to shrink, but in terms of market shares of total adherents their days were numbered almost from the beginning. The problem, say Finke & Stark, was that they were unable to compete against evangelical upstart denominations because they failed on two fronts: Message & Infrastructure.

The Congregationalists in particular had drifted far from their Puritan roots in terms of doctrine, and they were increasingly inclined toward a message of Unitarian Universalism. But they were not alone in this tendency, and were in close company with the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Even where churches preached the gospel, however, they failed in their structural inability to mobilize when the competition for members became clear.

Finke & Stark’s estimation of the Presbyterians is downright haunting. They agree that “no church in America, at the close of the War of Independence, was in a better position for immediate expansion than was the Presbyterian” (p. 75, quoting W.W. Sweet 1964). So what happened? Presbyterian leadership initially responded favorably to evangelistic endeavors like Camp Meetings, but pulled out almost entirely and condemned them within just a few years. Finke & Stark put the problem like this: “The Presbyterians worked tirelessly for unity, which they understood to be rooted in uniformity” (p. 76).

Far more astonishing is the evangelistic history of the Catholic Church in America from 1850—1920s. The received narrative is that the Catholic Church simply grew as a result of the arrival of immigrants from Catholic countries. The first problem with this story is that most so-called “Catholic countries” were nominal at best, as is attested by the large numbers of immigrants from these countries who made their first communion at American Catholic revivals well into adulthood. Furthermore, the Catholic Church in America successfully mobilized adherents to fund vast ecclesial and educational projects, even though the same adherents came from countries where tithing meant that some of their tax money was funneled to the church. In other words, American Catholics far outstripped their European counterparts in creating and sustaining a strong church with committed membership.

How, then, did Catholics in America succeed? The primary component was that they adapted to the competitive religious market in America through their own versions of revivals, called “missions” (p. 125). Catholic missions were scarcely different from their Protestant counterparts: they were short, well-planned periods of intense religious fervor, directed primarily toward existing parishes, which revolved around preaching repentance and commitment to Christ. As Finke & Stark explain, American Catholicism was primed to adapt upstart tactics precisely because their hierarchy was full of Irish Catholics, whose high-tension religious life against English Protestantism made them fiercely competitive players in the free religious market of America (p. 143).

In my opinion, the best part about The Churching of America is how thoroughly it dispels common wisdom through fact-based analysis, and prepares readers to embrace a new way of thinking about “how to do church.” The next best thing is how well it helps appreciate our uniquely American context, and the possibilities that God has granted us. Underlying these two things is a quality of writing which is unmatched by most scholars. This book is actually fun to read, and I regret that it took me until 2016 to actually pick it up and read it.