Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Parish, congregation , and local church, synagogue/temple or masjid/mosque are often used interchangeably to refer to the dominant institutional form of the world's major lived religious traditions in which adherents come together for worship and other religious activities.

Parish usually implies a geographic division of a larger religious or social entity into smaller, more manageable parts. Such subdivisions were common in England prior to the Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) of the Roman Catholic Counterreformation provided for the subdivision of cities, each under the authority of a priest, although this practice was not universally followed. The 1918 code of canon law attempted to make such subdivision an absolute law for Roman Catholics. In Southern Parish (University of Chicago Press 1951), Joseph Fichter shows that the Roman Catholic parish is a humanly devised institution developed for practical purposes of administration and maintained as an operative area within the total social structure of the church. The parish is not a voluntary association of laity but the product of a formal decision by the local bishop. It has four elements: (1) an appointed pastor, (2) a church building and parsonage (rectory, manse), (3) territorial limits, and (4) a designated group of persons ("members"). It functions as the ecclesiastical microcosm, "the church in miniature."

For much of American history, parish understandings of local religious communities predominated. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England, the creation of new towns followed legislative approval for the gathering of a new parish. For Roman Catholics in nineteenth-century urban America, one's parish was often a critical component of one's identity, and for Orthodox Jews, restrictions on sabbath travel formed a powerful link between neighborhood residence and religious participation.

By the twentieth century, with improved transportation, increased religious competition, and widespread cultural insistence on freedom of choice in religious matters, churches, synagogues, and mosques have become more voluntaristic in character. In Roman Catholicism, for example, while the geographic parish remains the formal means by which dioceses are organized, laity feel free to choose a parish based on personal preference. An understanding of churches, synagogues, and mosques as congregations has become more prevalent.

The historian E. Brooks Holifield (in Wind and Lewis 1994:23-53) has identified four major periods in the social role of Christian congregations in America. Comprehensive congregations (1607-1789) comprehended or included the community as a whole. In most of the colonies, there was one congregation for the community and its exclusive claim was protected by government. Congregations were simple organizations with a focus on worship, which usually was understood as the responsibility of the entire community. Devotional congregations (1789-1870) were a product of social diversity. Holifield notes that the number of congregations increased from fewer than 3,000 in 1780 to about 54,000 in 1860. Life had become more segmented, and congregations began to serve particular slices of the population. Worship too became segmented and focused on diverse forms of religious devotion, and new subdivisions were evident within religious traditions. Social congregations (1870-1950) reflect a willingness of congregations to transform their practices to become social centers. Holifield notes the emergence of the church parlor and the church picnic as new institutional forms, as well as new attention to the congregation's social and educational role. Congregations were becoming "busy" places. Finally, participatory congregations (1950-1990+) emphasize member involvement and shared involvement in congregational governance and leadership. Meaning and belonging are important themes, and congregations that take these themes seriously seem most likely to flourish. Some congregations seem to embody the comprehensive ideals of colonial groups by providing a total environment for committed members.

American congregations tend to be quite small, most averaging fewer than 200 in weekend worship. Roman Catholic congregations, which for the most part remain geographically based parishes, are larger than those of Protestant Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It is impossible to know how many individuals and families are members of congregations. Denominations and faith traditions vary in their understanding of membership and in record keeping. Some national denominations gather detailed data on their members and congregations; others lack even an address list of their member units. The U.S. government collects little information on religious organizations and no data on religious affiliation out of sensitivity to the separation of church and state. Each year, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA publishes the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches , which reports aggregated membership and financial statistics supplied by national religious bodies. The 1991 Yearbook reported a total of over 350,000 congregations. Another voluntary effort to develop data on congregations is an informal coalition organized by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies to produce a decennial report known as the Churches and Church Membership series. County-level counts of congregations and members have been produced for the years 1971, 1980, and 1990 based on data provided by most of the larger national denominations. Unfortunately, both the Yearbook and the Churches and Church Membership series underreport immigrant, non-Christian, and racial-ethnic populations as well as independent congregations.

The rise of independent congregations is an important development in the past quarter century. Through most of American history, congregations were usually affiliated with denominational bodies who supplied resources in the form of theological training for clergy, discipline for congregations and their leaders, opportunities for missionary work in this country and abroad, and books, hymnals, and educational materials. Most congregations remain part of denominational structures, but increasing numbers have chosen to become independent and freestanding. Others maintain an official denominational connection to a traditional denomination but function as independents. Some of these congregations—known popularly as megachurches or seeker churches —are quite large, attracting thousands of persons each week to worship services and ancillary programs (see Truehart 1996).

Scholarly attention to local churches, synagogues, and mosques has undergone several shifts in the twentieth century. In the early years of American sociology, the social sciences and religious communities were often viewed as partners, with the shared goal of social and moral reform. Ecological approaches to the study of urban and rural communities were well suited to parish understandings of religious communities and influenced pioneers in religious research such as H. Paul Douglass. The Institute of Social and Religious Research, founded by Douglass, sponsored dozens of community studies in the 1930s and stimulated hundreds of others. By the 1960s, this social ecology emphasis shifted somewhat with the rise of the human potential movement and organization development as an academic discipline. Published work on congregations took on a more critical tone as authors probed their weaknesses, particularly what many authors saw as an unwillingness on the part of laity to engage the social issues of the time. A new genre of "church renewal" literature was popular among Protestant Christians of various denominations. When, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, it had become apparent that after several decades of steady growth, many congregations were beginning to lose members each year, scholars and popular authors began to give attention to the dynamics of church growth and decline. Especially notable was the publication in 1979 of Understanding Church Growth and Decline , edited by Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen (Pilgrim). The new attention to church growth helped to popularize the missiological writings of Donald McGavran, C. Peter Wagner, and others associated with Fuller Theological Seminary.

One can trace shifts in the study of congregations by examining the career history of the influential Protestant church consultant Lyle Schaller, who began his long career as an urban planner but by the 1980s had come to focus on dynamics of interpersonal and institutional relationships as more important than community dynamics or denominational factors. Schaller's recent work has focused on church planning and growth with attention to small, midsized, large, and megachurches.

The work of James F. Hopewell, published posthumously in the book Congregation (Fortress 1987), signaled a change in parish or congregational studies. Hopewell, who was trained in the history of religions and anthropology, turned his attention to congregational story or narrative, drawing not on ecological or organizational methodologies but on literary theory as a means of understanding congregations. With others, Hopewell approached congregations not to improve their operations or to enlist them in the service of larger social and religious ends but because they are intrinsically interesting as human communities.

If the emphasis of H. Paul Douglass was on identifying commonalities among congregations in their community context, the new wave of congregational studies in the 1980s and 1990s has been on congregational uniqueness. This has brought attention to congregational culture as a research focus.

The Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based family foundation, has been an important factor in bringing congregations to the attention of scholars and the public. It has supported several large-scale research projects that led to publication of the multivolume collections, The American Catholic Parish , edited by Jay P. Dolan (Paulist Press 1987), and American Congregations , edited by James P. Wind and James A. Lewis (University of Chicago Press 1994). Lilly has also supported the work of the Project Team for Congregational Studies, an informal coalition of individuals and organizations committed to the scholarly study of congregations and producers of the book Building Effective Ministries edited by Carl S. Dudley (Harper 1983) and the Handbook for Congregational Studies edited by Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William McKinney (Abingdon 1987).

Paralleling the renewed interest in congregations in academic circles has been the creation since the 1960s of organizations that serve congregations through programs of research, education, consulting, and publication. Some are independent ecumenical nonprofit organizations, often associated with an a charismatic individual; examples include the Alban Institute (Loren Mead), the Yokefellows Institute (Lyle Schaller), National Evangelistic Association (Herb Miller), and the Center for Parish Development (Paul Dietterich). Others are affiliated with universities or theological schools such as the Cushwa Center for American Catholicism at Notre Dame, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, the Ormond Center at Duke, the Institute for Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Hartford Seminary's Center for Social and Religious Research. Most of these organizations are supported by sale of services to individuals and congregations and by grants from foundations.

Much of the research on congregations is a- or pretheoretical and centered on problems faced by contemporary congregations. Systems theory informs much of this work, sometimes implicitly—as in the Handbook for Congregational Studies and many of the publications of the Alban Institute—and sometimes explicitly—as in the work of the Center for Parish Development. The Handbook , which is widely used in theological seminaries, suggests a framework for understanding congregations that attends to the congregation's social context, identity, process, and program. Edwin Friedman uses family systems theory in his influential book Generation to Generation (Guilford 1985).

Although few propose a theory of the congregation, middle-range theories abound. Hoge and Roozen examined a variety of theories accounting for church growth. Their sorting of theories into national versus local, and contextual versus institutional, explanations has influenced subsequent research on this issue. Similarly, the work of Speed B. Leas on church conflict, Douglas Walrath on social context typologies, Lyle Schaller and Arlin Routhage on congregational size, Carl Dudley on small church dynamics, and Jackson Carroll, David Roozen, and William McKinney on congregation-community interaction has contributed to theory development in the field.

While congregational participation is for most believers the main organizational expression of their religious commitments, congregations receive surprisingly little attention from theologians. This may be changing as a result of renewed interest in the theological subdiscipline of practical theology stimulated by the work of Don S. Browning, David Kelsey, and others. Liberation theologians have shown a good deal of interest in comunidades de base in Latin America but tend to be very ambivalent about traditional congregations in North America. In biblical studies, the work of Wayne Meeks and Howard Kee on New Testament congregations has attracted a good deal of attention and reflects new interest in this field in the application of social scientific methods.

The past decade has seen the publication of several book-length studies of individual congregations of varying backgrounds; many of these reports are quite sophisticated methodologically. Nancy Ammerman's Bible Believers (Rutgers University Press 1987), R. Stephen Warner's New Wine in Old Wineskins (University of California Press 1988), Melvin Williams's Community in a Black Pentecostal Church (Waveland 1984), and Samuel Heilman's Synagogue Life (University of Chicago Press 1976) provide readers with a window on the heretofore private life of Baptist fundamentalist, evangelical Presbyterian, African American Pentecostal, and Orthodox Jewish congregations. In the case of each of these books, the impact of broader religious developments is seen in microcosm. Congregations also have received attention from journalists in the 1990s with the publication of Upon This Rock by Samuel Friedman (Harper 1993), Congregation by Gary Dorsey (Viking 1995), and And They Shall Be My People by Paul Wilkes (Atlantic Monthly Press 1994).

William McKinney


J. H. Fichter, Urban Parish (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954)

C. Truehart, "Welcome to the New Church," Atlantic Monthly (August 1996): 37-58

J. P. Wind and J. W. Lewis, American Congregations , Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

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