The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century

The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century

The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century

The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century


Religious traditions provide the stories and rituals that define the core values of church members. Yet modern life in America can make those customs seem undesirable, even impractical. As a result, many congregations refashion church traditions so they may remain powerful and salient. How do these transformations occur? How do clergy and worshipers negotiate which aspects should be preserved or discarded?

Focusing on the innovations of several mainline Protestant churches in the San Francisco Bay Area, Stephen Ellingson's The Megachurch and the Mainline provides new understandings of the transformation of spiritual traditions. For Ellingson, these particular congregations typify a new type of Lutheranism- one which combines the evangelical approaches that are embodied in the growing legion of megachurches with American society's emphasis on pragmatism and consumerism. Here Ellingson provides vivid descriptions of congregations as they sacrifice hymns in favor of rock music and scrap traditional white robes and stoles for Hawaiian shirts, while also making readers aware of the long history of similar attempts to Americanize the Lutheran tradition.

This is an important examination of a religion in flux- one that speaks to the growing popularity of evangelicalism in America.


It was a warm and sunny afternoon as I pulled into the parking lot of Zion Lutheran Church in the heart of Silicon Valley. I came to attend the installation of the congregation's new associate pastor. As I walked from the parking lot behind the church to the front entrance, I heard the rock-and-roll band playing loudly and I could smell the fatted pig being barbequed. As I rounded the corner, I saw the band setup on the front lawn in front of two or three hundred folding chairs under a large tent. I had just sat down near the back when Tom, a member I had met recently at the church's twelve-step Bible study, invited me to join him and his wife, and soon I found myself in the front row. The outdoor sanctuary filled up quickly as it neared the five o'clock starting time, and then the band launched into a set of simple “praise music” songs; the only one I recognized was an upbeat, jazzy rendition of the classic hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore You.” Several clergy walked through the band and sat down on chairs in front of the band; all were wearing brightly colored Hawaiian shirts. The senior pastor of Zion welcomed everyone to the service and invited us all to the postservice luau. The service continued with another praise song led by the rock band, and then one of the pastors read two passages from the New Testament.

Then came the main event: several of the visiting clergy delivered three- to four-minute sermons on the question that the new pastor had posed to them some weeks before, “What keeps you going?” The first pastor spoke about the days when he is overwhelmed by the job—too many deaths and illnesses, too many meetings, not enough time or compassion to deal with it all. “When I want to quit I turn to the Living Word. Hear the word of the prophet Isaiah, 'The grass fades, the flowers wither, but the word of our God will stand forever.' ” He gave a brief excursus on the centrality of daily Bible study for successful ministry and concluded with the following sage advice: “More of en than not I am driven to my knees by the demands of being a pastor. Ministry is about living with bruised knees, and scripture is the one thing that is constant; it is what I turn to when God drives me to my knees.”

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