Three Contemporary Religious Styles

It should be obvious to anyone who works with congregations that things have changed dramatically over the last few years. Both church membership and attendance have been steadily declining in almost every denomination and every church size.

So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine religious communities as a whole ever recovering completely. Diane Butler Bass, an independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture, has said, “We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church.”

imageedit_2_4314519740For those of us in the church biz, this could provoke a fair amount of anxiety. But Bass goes on to say, “The end of conventional church isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Why? Because—let’s face it—if people aren’t coming to churches like they used to, it might be because they just don’t find value in what we offer. So what can we offer that is of value?

One of the best presentations I’ve seen of what congregations offer (or could offer) is from John Ackerman in his book Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in Congregations.

Ackerman noticed way back in 2001 that there were three different styles of religion that congregations were offering: Old Style, Emerging New, and New Style. The differences are primarily around who’s in charge and how things are done.




Who has the responsibility for spiritual growth?

The hierarchy, the professors, the authors

The local congregation

The individual

Who is the authority?

The experts

Our common life


How does spiritual formation take place?

Sacraments, worship, study

Listening to God, obeying, being in community

Pick and choose

 Prayer  Done by experts, taught by experts

God teaches, the community teaches

Everything is prayer

Spirituality Dwelling

Journeying together

Leaders are credentialed

Academic preparation

Spiritual experience

Experts in the field

My colleague, Sue Sinnamon, added another component to Ackerman’s model as well, one specifically about justice-making:




Service and justice making

Informed and led by the experts, voted on by the members

Occupy model—living as if it is possible to have a just world

Only if I feel like it

It’s pretty clear to me that the Old Style is more or less the conventional church Bass talks about. Hierarchical, traditional, and hung up on doing things the official way. The New Age church, on the other hand, hardly qualifies as a church. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it kind of religion.

“I think the growing edge in American churches,” say Ackerman, “is in column 2.” The Emerging New. And it’s in this style that I see the greatest opportunity for spiritual growth, both individually and collectively.

Spiritual growth is the responsibility of the local congregation. The authority comes from the congregation’s common life. Spiritual growth comes from both discernment (“listening to God”) and being in community. Prayer is taught by the community. Spirituality is about journeying together. And leadership is based on spiritual experience.

If I had to sum up what I mean by “congregational spirituality,” this would be it.


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