The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy

The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy

The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy

The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy


In this provocative book, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark challenge popular perceptions about American religion. They view the religious environment as a free market economy, where churches compete for souls. The story they tell is one of gains for upstart sects and losses for mainline denominations.

Although many Americans assume that religious participation has declined in America, Finke and Stark present a different picture. In 1776, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans were active in church affairs. Today, church membership includes about 6 out of 10 people.

But, as Finke and Stark show, not all denominations benefited. They explain how and why the early nineteenth-century churches began their descent, while two newcomer sects, the Baptists and the Methodists, gained ground. They also analyze why the Methodists then began a long, downward slide, why the Baptists continued to succeed, how the Catholic Church met the competition of ardent Protestant missionaries, and why the Catholic commitment has declined since Vatican II. The authors also explain why ecumenical movements always fail

In short, Americans are not abandoning religion; they have been moving away from established denominations. A "church-sect process" is always under way, Finke and Stark argue, as successful churches lose their organizational vigor and are replaced by less worldly groups.

Some observers assert that the rise in churching rates indicates increased participation, not increased belief. Finke and Stark challenge this as well. They find that those groups that have gained the greatest numbers have demanded that their followers accept traditional doctrines and otherworldliness. They argue that religious organizations can thrive only when they comfort souls and demand sacrifice. When theology becomes too logical, or too secular, it loses people.


The first edition of The Churching of America caused quite a stir. Peter Steinfels devoted a New York Times article (February 20, 1993) to review the apparent controversies surrounding the book and reviews of the book went far beyond the traditional disciplinary outlets of sociologists and historians. Receiving the 1993 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the book has been praised by many. Sociologists have been effusive. Andrew Greeley described it as a “brilliant and revolutionary analysis of the social history of American religion” and Phillip Hammond (1993) agreed that it is a “wonderful, refreshing addition to the literature of both the sociology of religion and the history of American religions.” Many historians also welcomed the book. Church historian Walter Sundberg (1993) wrote that “many of us are still mesmerized by the Mainline Tale” that religious decline is inevitable in the face of modernity. He went on to prescribe that “reading Finke and Stark is the best way I know to break the spell.” John Wilson (1993) noted that the book is of “great significance in itself,” but predicted that it would also be important for the “discussions it provokes, both within disciplines and among them.” Robert Swierenga stated that the “authors convincingly challenge the biggest names in the field and show how an 'establishment' bias has blinded them to the real underlying pluralistic trends.” But those who were convincingly challenged were less receptive.

Writing in Christian Century, where he then served as the senior editor, Martin E. Marty (January 27, 1993) claimed that “Finke and Stark's world contains no God or religion or spirituality, no issue of truth or beauty or goodness, no faith or hope or love, no justice or mercy; only . . .

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