Interdenominational Dialogue: Seeking a Common Language for Affiliation Research and Practice
Gary A. Tobin
The literature on church membership has grown dramatically in the last twenty years. Scholars have undertaken serious examination of various facets of this issue: changes in the populations of the major religions in the United States, growth and decline in the membership of particular denominations, and individual attitudes and behaviors associated with involvement in religious institutions. They have examined in detail the contextual and institutional factors influencing growth and decline: demographic shifts, changes in the cultural milieu, congregational characteristics, the role of religious leadership, and even the economic benefits of belonging to churches.
This vast literature exhibits little commonality in the language and definitions used in discussing church affiliation. Churched and unchurched, affiliation, nonaffiliation and disaffiliation, membership and non-membership, growth and decline, outreach and a variety of other terms are used to discuss the phenomena related to church and synagogue participation, but their connotations and denotations shift from one faith tradition to another, from scholar to clergy, and from one academic discipline to another.
This chapter explores the definitional issues surrounding the study and discussion of congregational affiliation and growth. The first sections examine the range of definitions used by clergy and scholars. The final section suggests using the concepts of ideology, participation, and identity as a basis for sorting out the confusion and complexity in affiliation-related terminology.
The attempt to define who is inside the church or synagogue and who is outside takes many forms. Gordon Turner ( 1984), for example, proposes