In October of 2021, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported the results of a survey taken just before the pandemic, which showed that half of the congregations in the United States had 65 or fewer attendees on any given weekend – a drop of more than half from the year 2000, when the median attendance level was 137. American religious congregations are shrinking.
Although the speed of change is something of a shock, the general trend is not surprising. Declining participation in congregational life has been on the radar scope of sociologists of religion for a long time, and shows no sign of abating. But what are we to make of this sobering reality? And how should believers respond?
Michael Plekon’s most recent book, Community as Church: Church as Community, enters into this discussion from a unique perspective. As both a distinguished sociologist and an Orthodox pastor, Plekon is able to draw on his own life experience of change in congregational membership, and he also takes his orientation points from theology as well as social science. (His intellectual influences include both the sociological perspectives of Peter Berger, with whom he studied, and the Eucharistic ecclesiology of Orthodox theologian Nicolas Afanasiev, some of whose major works he was instrumental in getting published for the first time in English.) While not denying the ongoing trends of diminishing numbers, or minimizing the challenges these trends represent, Plekon sifts the evidence with an eye to discovering traces of the Paschal Mystery—the dying and rising of Christ—in the lived experience of these (primarily ecclesial) communities.
And he finds them. For every story of a congregation that closed or disbanded because it found itself paralyzed by the forces of history and unable to change, there are many more stories in this book of congregations that have shown creativity and resourcefulness in adapting to a shifting demographic. These “dying” congregations, one might say, are “reborn” through the embrace of fresh strategies concerning their life and mission—the result is not the same as what came before, but it displays a real vitality. The overwhelming number of stories the author shares give witness to how declining membership has actually pushed communities to engage more concretely and fruitfully in the struggles and hopes of the world around them.
One can see this in the management of their brick-and-mortar institutions. Many of these communities have transformed underused worship spaces, or other church properties that formerly focused on serving the needs of their own membership, into centers of service and mission that are outward-directed, such as affordable housing, help for the struggling, and places for promoting health and social engagement that are not market-driven. Yet it is not just the properties that have changed, the author argues. A change of mentality in the congregation and a new web of human relationships has also resulted.
In other words, the “death” of an old way of being has not marked the end for these congregations. Four of the seven chapters are devoted to telling stories of various types of “resurrection”: “Community Death and Resurrection: Repurposed, Reinvented, Replanted;” “More Resurrection: New Identity, New Life, Simplicity, and Back to the Table;” “Resurrection in Parishes Relocating and Restructuring;” and “Resurrection and the Small Church.” The resurrection these congregations experience is found in the discovery that despite their small size, they have something of great value to offer to the world. That something is community: a way of being together that generates life for those who exist beyond the congregation’s boundaries.
If the Paschal Mystery is the most obvious theme of this book, the more pervasive one is this theme of community. Plekon writes that “a church is often one of the few places where we experience the gathering and sustaining of community—this is the central claim of the entire book. Community is not easily found anymore in our landscapes” (p. 56) yet it remains the treasure that churches are capable of bringing to the world. Accordingly, the web of relationships woven by congregations that bring people together through serving the needs of their neighborhoods constitutes a life-giving, though different, expression of a religious mission. In Christian terms, the good news is that if the Church is indeed called to be Eucharist — bread broken and given for the life of the world – some of these smaller congregations are now living into that calling more splendidly than they did in their “glory days.”
The scope of the research that went into this book is wide. There are examples drawn from all areas of the US, as well as some from the UK and Canada, and stories are told from within numerous Christian denominations, as well as Judaism and Islam – although the preponderance of examples drawn here are Christian (only a few are Catholic). The writing style is engaging, and moves through the material with a conversational style. This is not a “charts and graphs” kind of book. It’s a study of practices animated by ideas and convictions, and both can be intriguing for the general reader, as well as the religious professional looking for insight and fresh perspectives on these general trends.
On a critical note, I must say that I found the author’s claims concerning the Paschal Mystery debatable. I was intrigued by this idea, and came to the book eager to see it play out. Yet I came away with some questions. Is it really a resurrection when a worship space is turned into a yoga studio or a coffee shop or affordable housing? As desirable as these entities may be within a secular context, if the religious commitment of those who sponsor such initiatives recedes into invisibility does this not reinforce the notion that belief is a private affair? On a practical level, what will become of such small congregations when their older members “age out” if there is not a younger cohort ready to constitute an assembly at worship? Do they “rise” temporarily, only to die again, like Lazarus? What is happening may be a good thing, but is it the Paschal Mystery?
On the other hand, the author’s confidence in the pre-eminent gift of the churches to “gather and sustain community” seems to me to be beyond question. The inspiring realization embedded in these pages is that this gift of community continues to be made present in various ways by people of faith, no matter the size or configuration of their congregations. And it is a gift sorely needed today. This is a reality we do well to notice.
In the midst of plenty of doomsday predictions of the decline of religion, Plekon’s book stands out as an exercise in Christian realism. He sees the problem of shrinking congregations. But he also invites us to see a great many signs of hope that we might otherwise miss.
Plekon, Michael. Community as Church, Church as Community. Cascade Books: 2021. 272 pages. Hardcover: $48.00; ISBN: 9781725287549. Paperback: $33.00; ISBN: 9781725287532.