Churches decline when they abandon traditional niche

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Liberal mainline churches have lost conservative members because they have abandoned that traditional membership niche they once served, according to sociologists.

Looking for their niche.

“Our studies indicate six basic ideological niches into which churches fall, ranging from ultraliberal to ultraconservative. Most church attendees, regardless of social class, are moderates and conservatives who form the great middle of the membership bell curve,” said Roger Finke, professor of sociology in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts.

“Because their demand for different forms of religion is remarkably stable, Americans tend to either remain in or seek out churches that suit their niche,” he notes.

“Of course, this demand curve represents only those that are seeking a religion. There will always be some that don’t seek out religious answers or solutions.”

Churches change.

While church swapping occurs frequently in this country, people rarely swap niches. Instead, it is the churches themselves that shift from niche to niche, usually from conservative to liberal, the sociologist adds.

Finke is co-author of the recent book, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, published by the University of California Press.

As a religious group grows in numbers and acceptance, its “tension” or degree of separateness from secular society diminishes, and the church becomes yet another mainstream denomination.

For a time, it ministers to a conservative and moderate niche, then, as it moves away from these larger niches to the smaller liberal niche, it stops growing, said the Penn State researcher.

Two reasons.

“This happens for two reasons,” Finke said. “First, large congregational size reduces a church’s ability to monitor the loyalty of its members and swells the number of free-riders or members with little or no commitment.

“Second, the professionalization of clergy, while it results in better trained and educated ministers, often produces clergy with a more tepid religious commitment. Both of these factors pull down the initial level of religious ardor.

“As churches move from higher- to lower-tension niches, they will tend to accumulate at the liberal end of the spectrum.

“Consequently, low-tension churches will typically have declining memberships and will tend to disappear via mergers,” Finke notes.

Basis of study.

The researchers based their conclusions on the General Social Surveys from 1972 through 1994, coding 16,037 churchgoers according to their location along the continuum of religious belief: ultraliberal (.8 percent), liberal (18.4), moderate (31.5), conservative (35.1), strict (12.9) and ultrastrict (1.3).

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