Notes on the Sociology of Religion (2)

John C. Rankin (2008)

Ammerman, Nancy T., et. al., eds., Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998).


  • Background (first three editors): a) Nancy T. Ammerman (1950-), professor of sociology, Boston University (Baptist Battles, 1992, + Branch Davidian inquiry); b) Jackson W. Carroll (God’s Potters, 2006); C. Carl S. Dudley (1932-), professor of church and community, Hartford Institute for Religion Research (M.Div. Union, Ph.D., McCormick).
  • Content:
  1. Purpose is to supply scholars, theologians and others with resources to study religious congregations in a disciplined fashion: a) “voluntary nature” assumption of new paradigm per Warner, Finke and Stark; b) sociological presupposition that “theology is faith seeking understanding” (p. 23); c) exercise in practical theology: imagination and memory, multiple theological perspectives, narratives, practices and texts.
  2. Ecology: space, demographics, organization.
  3. Culture: a) subcultures in larger society, rituals, religious education, fellowship, volunteer or “kitchen” work, introducing newcomers, artifacts, stories and histories, language, myths, worldviews [ironic, tragic, comic, romantic], symbols, images and metaphors, theologies in stories as opposed to creeds).
  4. Process and frames of perspective: a) formal and informal [nature of authority therein]; program planning, group building and conflict management).
  5. Resources: money, buildings, land, assets, sacred spaces) and capacities (people, talents, intangibles.
  6. Leadership role in the study of congregations: a) help congregation gain realistic perspective of needs; help develop vision to meet the needs, embody the vision; b) formal and informal authority; clergy authority as granted by God; willingness of people to acknowledge authority; practical concerns; c) conflict management.
  7. Methods for congregational study: a) well-defined focus; b)  disciplined approach – time-line exercise, archival and census analysis, questionnaires and surveys, value of a different perspective, “viewing the old situation with new lenses (p. 198), observation protocol + interviewing process.
  8. Critique: sociological definition of faith fails to motivate in most particularistic settings.


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House of Lords 17 October 2017

Text of John Rankin’s address on the occasion of the 500th annive5rsary of the Reformation.