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John C. Ortberg, Jr.

Denominations and Dinosaurs

If congregations do not adapt to a rapidly changing environment, they will become extinct.

Val Tollefson's complaint about Pastor Ingqvist of the Lutheran church in Lake Wobegon is that he mumbles and he murmurs; it's a lot of on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand that. "He never comes straight out. He never puts the hay down where the goats can get it."

Putting the hay down where the goats can get it is a challenge for the church in every era. Perhaps it is no more so in ours than in others. But the goats seem to be moving more rapidly these days. They are more mobile, more consumer-oriented, and busier than they once were. They have more options for amusement; more claims on their allegiance; less loyalty to a denomination, and higher expectations for fulfillment than any flocks of recent memory.

Indeed, thinkers as various as David Wells and Martin Marty wonder if, in our preoccupation with reaching the goats, we have not forgotten the hay. Meanwhile, church-growth consultants insist that those who reckon themselves guardians of the hay do not understand the goats; Rich Mouw writes in Consulting the Faithful that the goats themselves may have wisdom we're not hearing. Getting the true hay to real goats is not a simple job.

So the work of sociologist Nancy Ammerman and her colleagues in Congregation and Community is both welcome and timely. It is an ambitious project, intended to serve as a sequel to H. Paul Douglass's classic 1925 study, Church in the Changing City.

The scope alone sets this work apart: a team of 17 researchers and writers studied nine communities scattered across the United States, identifying 449 churches and doing extensive research on two congregations in each community plus five mini-studies of other congregations. Congregation and Community is more empirically based than, say, Habits of the Heart, but it also aims to be a reflective consideration of the state of the church in America. It is painstakingly meticulous, thorough in detail, and will clearly be the definitive sociological study of the church for many years to come.

Ammerman ...

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