Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium

Article excerpt

Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium. By Donald E. Miller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. ix + 253 pp. $27.50 (cloth).

Don Miller provides us with a challenging model for turning the tide from Church decline to growth in his analysis of "new paradigm churches." An Episcopalian, Miller is an outsider to the megachurch movement. He draws on his expertise as a sociologist of religion to provide a look at the inside of three of these fast-growing nondenominational congregations: The Vineyard, Hope Chapel and Calvary Chapel. He seeks not only to provide a description of this phenomenon of contemporary American religion, but to discover what mainline Protestant churches can learn from it.

Miller tells us of congregations where scores of young people attend evening Bible studies and where new churches grow by hundreds of new members over a period of months, We hear touching stories of hard-core drug addicts finding new life and of others who previously did not feel comfortable in conventional religious settings finally finding a spiritual home.

The success of these churches stems from several factors. They do not use any conventional Christian symbolism that might be a barrier to unchurched newcomers. They favor a relaxed, emotionally charged style of worship featuring Bible teaching and a contemporary style of music. They offer a sense of community through a variety of small-group and specialinterest ministries. By offering a range of recreational programs as well as worship experiences and teaching, they develop an environment of shared val ties. All of these characteristics appeal to people who feel isolated and lack a sense of group identity or feel alienated from more traditional religion. In short, megachurches have successfully targeted their audience and have found their niche in the market of American religion.

In the midst of this enthusiastic recounting of life, in new paradigm congregations, Miller almost seems to suggest that we close the doors of the mainline churches and come join the party. Yet, it seems to me that the megachurch movement described in this book is not so much the transformation of all American Protestantism, but the new face of evangelicalism. A look at the statistical tables provided in three appendices indicate that these churches are not draining membership from the mainline denominations to any great extent. Only 11 percent of new paradigm church members were raised in liberal Protestant churches, whereas 36 percent came from other evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds. …