Can Anything Good Come out of Rural Alabama?
by Daryl Healea
*Daryl was the project field researcher in rural Alabama.
This is a paper he wrote in his Masters program for Peter Berger on the
data he collected from Alabama.
Traditionally, religious work in America has been organized through
denominational structures that systematically networked local
congregations, regional judicatories and national offices. These
structures, however, are undergoing changes in conjunction with the
changes of organizational structures in the broader society. Indeed,
while denominations struggle to understand their present situation,
entirely new forms of religious organization and networks are emerging.
If both denominational decadence and new organizational emergence are
taken together then one may theorize that denominations are breaking
down. Yet empirical evidence, particularly at the local level of
congregations, is not available to substantiate such theories.
Therefore, the purpose of this project is to assess the extent of these
changes by examining the organizational networks of congregations in
So what are the benefits of such a project? I believe there are four.
The first is primarily selfish. Last year I spent a considerable amount
of effort gathering data on congregations in rural Alabama for the
Organizing Religious Work Project (ORW project). Yet I did nothing with
this enormous amount of data. Furthermore, I had felt distanced from
the scholarly issues and debates surrounding the project. Refusing to
remain alienated from my labor I took the initiative for further study.
This project provides an excellent opportunity to introduce myself to
the literature on this topic, to engage in my first sociological
endeavor, and to analyze and draw conclusions from the data I gathered.
Second, I believe this project speaks on a scholarly level to various
issues in denominationalism, pluralism and modernity. The congregations
I studied have unique denominational ties that are generally strong and
cohesive in spite of theories of denominational breakdown. Pluralism,
as associated with the melting pots of urban metropolises, is not
present in rural Alabama and may contribute to the strength of these
denominational ties. Furthermore, the rural congregations I studied
have a tendency to "insulate" themselves from the reverberations of
Third, I believe that this project can assist local congregations in
the development and maintenance of their religious work. The findings
of this project map out various webs of connections among congregations
in rural Alabama. If congregations are made aware of this then they
will be provided with comparative models in which to measure their own
work. Fourth, I believe that the theological expressions found in these
rural communities of faith are of great value to others. This project
provides beneficial theological reflections on rural congregations,
their denominational ties, and their organizational networks.
It is important to introduce a series of definitions at the start. The
first term that one continually runs across is that of "work." Work is
certainly a broad term. However, this is necessary to parallel the
changes occurring in other institutional segments of the broader
American society. In particular, it designates those programs,
activities, or networks through which a congregation expresses its
identity and mission. A simple organizational analysis reveals that
"denominations" are centralized, hierarchical systems that facilitate
the organization of religious work through local congregations,
regional judicatories, and national offices.
Yet as this paper shows, denominations are more than this as they also
promote community, convey theology, and influence local cultures. In
light of this, "denominationalism" is devotion to denominational
structures, a promotion of who denominations are and what they achieve.
In addition, one can view denominationalism as a fluid process
conditioned by denominations that change, transform, or evolve over
time. The final definition is that of "partner organization." Simply
stated, a partner organization designates those organizations (not
denominational affiliates) with which a congregation networks, or
partners, to accomplish its work.
The layout of this paper is divided into five major sections. First, an
overview of existing research is provided to contextualize my
particular study of congregations in rural Alabama. Second, a section
on methodology reveals how data was gathered. The third section is the
heart of my paper and it unveils a thorough presentation of findings.
The fourth section reflects theologically upon these findings with the
aid of a practical theological model. Finally, I bring this paper to a
close with a summary of conclusions.
II. Overview of Existing Research
It is my perception that the nature of this project begs many questions
at its outset. Why is this a study of congregations? Indeed, why study
in rural Alabama of all places? Is the study of congregations in rural
Alabama merely an arbitrary decision? In sum, what are the motivating
reasons for such a particular study?
In light of such questions it is necessary to backup and study the
genesis of this project. Thus, the layout of this section is organized
deductively into three parts: (1) a review of the research motivating
the ORW project, (2) an overview of the ORW project itself, and (3) a
presentation of research in the area of rural congregational studies.
This section is not meant to be an elaborate exposition. It simply
provides a general overview of existing research while referencing the
enormous amount of literature that provides such depth. In doing so it
acts as a "spring board" to the very crux of my paper, the presentation
Research motivating the Organizing
Religious Work Project
Denominations as distinct and dynamic entities
Denominational structures are the bedrock of the American religious
experience. Indeed, the denomination has been the primary structure by
which religious work is organized. Historically, a local congregation
received its religious education materials, hired clergy, engaged its
local community, and supported world missions without leaving its
Reflecting on this history, Russell E. Richey has developed five stages
of American denominationalism. These stages highlight the fact that
denominations are the distinct facilitators of American religion. They
also highlight the fact that denominations are dynamic and it is the
very nature of denominationalism to change. Richey states that "radical
change is not a new experience, either for denominations or for the
collectivity that we call denominationalism. Both the form
(denomination) and the family (denominationalism) have changed, evolved
over time, metamorphosed."
Nancy Ammerman’s three-fold analysis of denominations contributes
to a further understanding of these dynamics. She argues that
"denominations are sets of beliefs and practices; they are
organizations; and they are culturally constructed identities." At its
most fundamental level a denomination is defined by its beliefs and
practices, theological data that is often found in the form of sermons,
treatises, and other modes of communication unique to the church. By
the early 1900’s, however, denominations developed a second level
of demarcation, that of being modern organizations. Inspired by models
of centralization and efficiency in the business world, denominations
made use of constitutions, bylaws, budgets, and bureaucratic
flow-charts. As Ammerman states, "denominations of all polities were
consolidating their missions, publishing enterprises, and other
ventures under one organizational roof." Finally, denominations
developed a third level of identification conditioned precisely by the
variant cultures in which they exist. Indeed, denominations exist
within a context of peoples and places that generate interpretations of
what it means to be a denomination. These interpretations are powerful
enough to shape both the ideas and actions of a denomination.
Denominations are in transition
Richey and Ammerman reveal that to understand the American religious
experience one must first understand denominations as distinct and
dynamic structures. For the most part these structures are still in
place and in some contexts they remain quite cohesive. However, a
simple analysis reveals at least three signs that denominations are
fragmenting. First, the latter half of this decade exhibits significant
decline in the attendance and membership counts of mainline
denominations. Second, the contemporary religious experience has become
more pluralistic and many forms of religious expression have been
pushed into the private sphere. Third, and closely related to the
second, denominational boundaries have blurred. Denominational
switching and marriages that cross denominational lines are more
common. Furthermore, churchgoers find it difficult to distinguish one
denomination from another based on the primary lines of demarcation,
that of beliefs and practices. Thus, as the social context changes, so
do the organizational structures. In light of this, Jackson Carroll and
Wade Clark Roof state that, "the denomination often appears out of
kilter, if not hopelessly obsolete, in an America where religion has
become more pluralistic and privatized."
Are denominations breaking down? The simple answer is "yes," but the
question is more complex than it seems. Indeed, the coordinators of the
ORW project argue that a better characterization of denominationalism
is one of "transition" rather than "demise." As stated earlier,
denominations are changing entities. They should be viewed alongside
the growth and vitality of Pentecostalism and the "mega-church"
movements. In fact, these movements have motivated many denominations
to implement plans for restructuring.
Newly emerging forms of organization and denominationalism
While denominations struggle with these unsettled times, newly emerging
forms of organization are developing alongside. The best examples of
these are parachurches and "special purpose groups." Commenting on this
phenomenon, Robert Wuthnow states that the "symbolic boundaries have
changed." He argues that there are "new modes of religious
identification, new distinctions in the web of religious interaction,
alterations in the lines of moral obligation that define religious
communities, and changes in the categories that are taken for granted
in religious discourse." As a result various networks and webs of
connections between new organizations and denominations are increasing
Closely related to this phenomenon is the primacy of local
congregations. Loren Mead argues that, "congregations have power,
enormous power." Furthermore, the authors of Studying Congregations: A
New Handbook state that "a pattern of de facto congregationalism, the
unofficial yet persistent adoption of congregational forms, is
increasingly prevalent, even in traditions such as the Presbyterian,
Methodist, and Episcopal, where it is not the official norm."
Congregations are becoming more concerned with their local contexts and
their denominational structures are becoming less efficient vehicles
for organization. In these days local congregations may work sole alone
or they may "partner" with others to accomplish their work. Indeed,
they may work with other denominations, other faiths, or other
organizations (both secular and religious) to gather resources, foster
identity and facilitate mission programs.
Denominations are not isolated institutions. Transformation in the
organization of religious work must be seen against the backdrop of
technological and demographic changes in the broader culture. Utilizing
this perception, Ammerman, with the help of sociologist Stewart Clegg,
writes that, "we seem to be moving away from a period of
‘modern’ organizations into one of
If Ammerman is correct then denominations are moving beyond traditional
definitions. In effect, they require novel definitions that are more
appropriate. And if denominations are breaking down then this must be
seen in conjunction with the rise of newly emerging forms of religious
organization. In sum, the ORW project is an attempt to gather empirical
evidence that tests these hypotheses.
The layout of the Organizing Religious Work Project
Motivated by the above research, the Hartford Institute for Religion
Research at Hartford Seminary, in Hartford, Connecticut drafted a
research proposal entitled, Organizing Religious Work for the 21st
Century: Exploring "Denominationalism." It is a large and ambitious
study coordinated by Nancy T. Ammerman, Adair T. Lummis, and David A.
Roozen. Their purpose is quite clear:
The project proposed here is an attempt to delineate the emerging
patterns of organization, both internal and connectional, through which
religious work is done—local, regional and
national—exploring both the transformation of historical
structures and the emergence of entirely new configurations and
entities. We will explore the social and theological causes and
implications of the emergent patterns, including the possibility that
they are related to new definitions of the very nature of religious
Their project is also well organized. Utilizing the structural makeup
of denominations, the project is divided into three levels: (1) a focus
on national offices, (2) a focus on regional judicatories, and (3) a
focus on local congregations.
The national level
The national offices of a denomination are organized to provide sources
for protocol and goal attainment. The challenge at this level is to
understand that national denominational structures are religious
organizations. To handle the tensions between the religious nature and
the organizational nature of this level, coordinators speak of
denominations as "embodied theology." The focus here is "to study the
interrelationship between the Christian nature and the organizational
nature of national denominational structures as they adapt to the
changing situation of the emerging 21st century." To accomplish this
task, national offices are being analyzed sociologically with
descriptive cases and theologically with sets of practical theological
applications. An executive from each denomination acts as a liaison for
the research team. Different denominations may adapt to changing
situations in different ways. Thus, eight "focus denominations" have
been selected because of their differences in history, polity,
theology, and ethnic heritage. (see table 1)
The judicatory level
Regional Judicatories act as a catalyst between the national offices
and the local congregations. Indeed, the line of communication between
both entities is a two-way street. On one hand, judicatories represent
the national offices by communicating goals and information to the
local congregations. On the other hand, judicatories emphasize the
voice of local congregations at the national level. Thus, "we cannot
understand how national denominational structures are doing their work,
or how local congregations connect to their denominational structures,
without understanding the shifting roles, resources and effectiveness
of judicatories." A representative from the focus denominations of
regional judicatories in each research site is providing information
about the organization of religious work at its level and how this
relates to both the national offices and the local congregations.
The congregational level
Local congregations are obviously a crucial element to this study as
they are intricately related to both national offices and regional
judicatories. Congregations are also involved in a reciprocal
relationship with their local communities. Congregations draw on
various resources, peoples, and ideas from local communities. In turn,
congregations provide a community with moral education, spiritual
formation and a public place in which to pursue both. Furthermore,
congregations provide a wealth of social services to communities
through financial assistance and volunteer activity. But how
congregations organize this work is a crucial question. Indeed, very
little empirical research at the local level of congregations has been
conducted to explore this question.
Therefore, the local level of this project, will document the
functional webs of connection that are shaping local religious life and
making possible the extension of religious impulses beyond the local
congregation’s reach. It will seek to analyze who is doing what,
with whom, and with what effect. It will give attention both to
existing denominational connections and to emerging new forms.
Seven research sites across the nation have been selected in
coordination with the national and judicatory levels of the project.
They represent "regional and other experiences with religious
organization, as well as differences in population size." (see table 2)
The countryside of the rural South offers a very distinct context when
compared to metropolitan cities as well as to other rural areas around
the country. In particular, rural Alabama is saturated with churches
and offers a notable racial composition.
Review of research in rural congregational studies
The traditional rubric in congregational studies holds that a
congregation’s identity, programs, and processes are profoundly
shaped by its social context. It is necessary, therefore, to focus the
remainder of this overview on the particular area of rural
congregational studies. Indeed, the countryside of rural Alabama is a
major factor in distinguishing this project from others.
There is a large body of research in the general areas of both rural
sociology as well as rural congregational studies. However, there is no
particular research that studies congregations in rural Alabama. To
avoid arbitrary references to this literature I have isolated four
major themes relevant to this project: (1) the rural context, (2) the
crucial issues accompanying rurality, (3) the nature of rural
congregations, and (4) the denominational relations of rural
The rural context
Many characteristics come into view when defining the rural context.
The first and most obvious is the demographic of low population.
Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by. In fact, Rural
Congregational Studies cites that the U.S. Census only provides a
complex definition of urban. Thus, in conjunction with the following
definition everything else is considered rural by default:
The urban population comprises all persons living in (a) places of
2,500 or more inhabitants incorporated as cities, villages, boroughs
(except in Alaska and New York), and towns (except in the New England
States, New York, and Wisconsin) but with low population density in one
or more large parts of their area; (b) census designated places
(previously termed unincorporated) of 2,500 or more inhabitants; and
(c) other territory, incorporated or unincorporated, included in
urbanized areas. An urbanized area comprises one or more places and the
adjacent densely settled surround territory that together have a
minimum population of 50,000 persons.
Population statistics are not the only characteristics of rurality.
Rural Congregational Studies also cites geography, economy, and
mind-sets & values. As can be expected most rural areas are either
geographically isolated or distanced from higher populated areas and
metropolitan cities. In addition, the economy of a rural area is most
dependent upon the land. This economic dependence often takes the form
of a single industry such as agriculture, fishing, lumber, or mining.
Finally, and more difficult to define, there is the characteristic of
mind-sets & values. Rural areas value traditional ways, a cyclical
concept of time, integration of work and leisure, and a lifestyle that
greatly identifies itself with the land. So what is it that makes a
community rural? There certainly is no standard definition. A complex
web of both quantitative and qualitative characteristics defines
rurality and "in the end, defining ‘ruralness’ has as much
to do with quality of lifestyle as size or demographics."
Issues accompanying rurality
Closely related to the characteristics defining the rural context are
the various issues with which rural communities are struggling. For the
most part, the heart of these struggles emerged out of the "farm
crisis" in the 1980’s. Farms that had been family owned for
generations suddenly went bankrupt. Rural Ministry states that:
government policies to control inflation led to the doubling of real
interest rates, which drove land prices in rural America down to as low
as one-third of their previous value. Almost overnight, farms and rural
businesses that depended on borrowed money to operate were thrown into
deep financial trouble.
In fact, the total number of farms in the United States had decreased
significantly from 2.433 million in 1980 to 2.003 million in 1992. This
economic crisis struck deep and as a result the very foundations of
rural communities crumbled. Financial issues soon unraveled into a
whole host of social, psychological, spiritual, vocational, and family
issues. The "farm crisis" became the "rural crisis."
The impact from these losses is extensive. Rural communities struggle
with stress, depression, suicide, and alcoholism more than ever before.
In fact, the conclusion of one recent study notes that the mental
health needs of rural America are simply "unmet" and "unaddressed."
Rural poverty is also on the rise. As one source notes, "the rate of
poverty in rural areas has matched or exceeded that in central city
neighborhoods." Furthermore, single-industry production is dwindling
and rural residents are forced to look elsewhere for quality,
Issues relating to the environment, the influx of migrant workers, and
the decline of federal and state funds also accompany these changes.
All of the above issues present a challenge to rural congregations.
Indeed, Rural Congregational Studies notes that "with the dismantling
of such governmental programs and institutions over the past decade, a
power vacuum has been created into which churches have only recently
begun to step. Regaining a traditional sense of mission is no easy
task." With this is in mind let us move to an understanding of the
nature of rural congregations.
The nature of rural congregations
Approximately 80 percent of Protestant rural congregations have an
active membership of 150 or less. Complimenting this, Lyle Schaller
writes that, "for nearly four centuries, the small congregation has
been the dominant institutional expression of Protestant Christianity
on the North American continent." In effect, small congregations
provide an environment that is most conducive to intimacy and the
building of relationships. Rural congregations are relational
However, there is some debate over this. On one hand, congregations are
seen as very relational and anti-programmatic. Programs, objectives and
bureaucracy seem to do nothing else but undermine the personal sense of
community that these congregations treasure. Ron Klassen emphasizes the
"informal and spontaneous" nature of rural congregations when he states
that "what mattered to the them was personal relationships, a sense of
family within community and within church." On the other hand,
congregations are seen as utilizing programs to express the intimacy of
relationships. In fact, The Center for Theology and Land has engaged in
a study of 100 rural congregations and notes that "rural folks do seem
to want an organized pattern that expresses accountability and
directions for the future…For them, strategy expressed
relationship." But whether or not rural congregations are programmatic
is secondary to the fact that they highly value the warmth and intimacy
of personal relationships.
This emphasis on relationships is also well noted by a study that
incorporated thirty years of research on congregations in rural
Missouri. The study refers to the rural church as a "primary group."
Primary groups are "small face-to-face groups whose members relate to
one another in a whole range of settings and are bonded by affective
relationships—love and loyalty." The fact that rural churches are
primary groups is important because it counters the observed
characteristics of the larger society. Local businesses undergo
urbanization and local schools undergo consolidation but rural churches
take a different course. Indeed, the Missouri study concludes that,
"rural churches have, to some degree, insulated themselves from the
most direct influences of the larger society." As congregations and
organizations in other areas around the country adapt to the changes
accompanying modernity, rural congregations have developed a tendency
to "insulate" themselves and remain scarcely touched.
Relationships of rural congregations to their national denominations
are strained. Rural congregations are most concerned with localized
personal relationships and tend to "insulate" themselves. Shannon Jung
states that some of the most vital rural congregations "have adopted an
enterprising, locally self-sufficient attitude. They realize that their
future cannot be dependent on denominational offices to pull them
through." In effect, rural congregations often feel distant and even
alienated from denominational legislation at the national level.
In a study about leadership in small congregations, Douglas Walrath notes that
pastorates with rural, small churches are frequently assumed to be, and
are even openly characterized within denominational circles as being,
"on the bottom." Pastors who are appointed to rural parishes commonly
believe they are seen by denominational officials, and often by their
colleagues, as less able. Lay leaders of small churches affiliated with
denominations that follow the call system of placement complain that
their churches often seem able to attract only less experienced or less
Furthermore, Walrath argues that the religious education materials
supplied by denominations to rural congregations is unsuitable because
they "rarely reflect the cultural characteristics of rural, small
congregations." And all of these as seminaries are criticized for
failing to prepare graduates for rural, small town ministry.
Others argue, however, that these tenuous ties are "overemphasized."
Denominational support, may be direct financial assistance, but it is
more likely to be in the form of consultation, preparation and
distribution of literature, training of ministers and other church
workers, recruiting of ministers, and planning of activities.
Denominational authority also legitimates local practices as proper and
certifies ministers as qualified.
Many congregations are still supported by denominations and participate
in very cohesive organizational networks to their denomination.
A study of congregations in rural Alabama is an audacious task at best.
Congregations are extremely complex and dynamic entities and they exist
in environments that are even more complex and dynamic. Thus, the
following methods are, first of all, an attempt to gain a general
understanding of congregational life. A basic uncovering of a
congregation’s identity, context, process and program provides a
solid foundation from which to ask more particular questions relevant
to this project.
However, the primary purpose of these methods is to gain the more
particular understanding of how congregations in rural Alabama organize
their religious work. A multiple-method approach garners a more
accurate understanding for this purpose. Thus the following section
discusses the variety of methods utilized in this study: (1) rural
county selection, (2) the generation of church lists, (3) the
congregational surveys, (4) the congregational interviews, (5) the
partner organization probes, and (6) the case studies. Two additional
methods, judicatory interviews and partner organization interviews,
were also employed in this study and are discussed in this section.
However, at the time of this paper’s composition, data resulting
from these two methods was not available.
The process of selecting counties to represent the rural Alabama
research site was conducted during the Spring of 1997. The method of
selection took various criteria into consideration. First, the counties
of rural Alabama would have to be balanced with the other research
sites in the ORW project. Each site is distinctively different from one
another in terms of region, religion and population. Taken together,
all seven research sites are to represent the general expression of the
American religious experience. Second, the selected counties would need
to facilitate coordination with the national and judicatory levels of
the ORW project. Third, the counties would need to provide practical
and efficient accessibility for field research. Fourth, and most
important, the counties would need to represent rural Alabama and the
distinct countryside of the deep South. To accomplish this the
demographics and church populations of each county in Alabama were
analyzed. Utilizing the above criteria, Chilton County and Dallas
County were selected to represent the research site of rural Alabama.
A listing of all churches in each county was generated during the
months of August and September in 1997. Multiple methods and sources
contributed to this list. First, local telephone directories from each
county were consulted. The directories provide a very thorough registry
of local congregations. However, the directories are solely limited to
those congregations with listed telephone numbers. Since many rural
congregations do not have a phone, much less a listed telephone number,
it was necessary to explore other sources. A second method consulted
with regional judicatory offices. Most judicatories have lists of their
own denominationally affiliated congregations and were willing to
provide these lists for the study. At this point, however, it was still
apparent that many independent and non-denominational congregations
were not being counted. Thus a third method was utilized as I drove
down every road in each county to identify unlisted congregations. All
three sources were compared to eliminate repetition and to provide as
thorough and accurate a list as possible.
A master list of 305 congregations was generated from the above sources
and represents an estimate of all the congregations in the two counties
combined. From this master list a sample of 40 congregations was
randomly selected for surveys and interviews. These select
congregations constitute a 13% random sample that reflects the
distribution of congregations in the two counties.
Between the months of September 1997 and April 1998, a key informant,
usually the minister, from each of the 40 congregations was asked to
participate in the study. Most ministers agreed to set up a formal
appointment while others preferred a more informal meeting over lunch
or after a Sunday morning service. At the beginning of each meeting,
ministers were asked to fill out a short congregational survey designed
by the directors of the ORW project. (See appendix 1) The results from
these surveys have been assigned numerical codes and have been entered
into a spreadsheet/data management system to facilitate statistical
The congregational survey itself is divided into four major sections.
The first section ascertains demographic information. The minister is
asked to provide estimates on many congregational variables including
church attendance, racial composition, educational attainment, and
household income. The second section asks a series of resource
questions. Variables include children’s education materials,
hymnals, clergy insurance, and clergy training. The third section is an
inquiry into the budgeting processes of a congregation. The minister is
asked about subsidies, grants, denominational mission work
expenditures, and organizational funding beyond the congregation. The
final section asks the minister to highlight what matters most to the
congregation and what it should be doing in the world. In this section,
a variety of questions probe the importance of in-reach programs,
outreach ministries, spirituality and denominational leadership.
During the same meeting each minister also participated in a
congregational interview. (See appendix 2) Ministers were interviewed
to find out what a congregation does, what its activities and
ministries are and with whom, if anyone, it does this with. The
interviews were recorded on audiotape and later transcribed. Each
interview is being analyzed thematically for content.
The congregational interview is divided into five major sections. The
first section simply asks introductory questions about the
congregation’s history, theology, location and denominational
affiliation. The second section is an exploration of the various
activities of a congregation and its partner organization. The minister
is asked to describe the activities of an average week and to highlight
specific programs available for members and non-members. The third
section asks more specific questions about the various resources that a
congregation utilizes for its own internal work. Questions are asked
about study materials, administrative materials, evangelism training,
and ministry ideas to name just a few. The fourth section investigates
the denominational ties and/or networking affiliations of a
congregation. The minister is asked to describe denominational
resources, events and concerns. The final section concludes the
interview with questions that explore the congregation’s sense of
mission. Ministers discuss the critical needs of their community and
the particular issues that are of most concern to their congregation.
Partner Organization Probes
Within each congregational interview an emphasis is placed on gathering
information about a congregation’s affiliated organizations. If,
during the course of an interview, a congregation was found partnering
with another organization to accomplish its work then that particular
organization was designated a "partner organization." Information about
the nature of this connection was then probed with a series of
penetrating questions. These questions probe information on the
headquarters of the organization, the number of people participating in
the connection, the nature of the connection, and who it was that
initiated the connection. The resulting information provides a fuller
picture of how a congregation accomplishes the work that it deems
In the summer of 1998, four out of the forty sampled congregations were
selected for further analysis. (See table 3) These congregations
represent the various patterns of connections identified in the
previous interviews and surveys. In-depth case studies of these
congregations were conducted to explore more carefully the impact a
congregation’s identity, culture, and mission has on its
participation in various forms of connections. Multiple methods were
utilized to collect data and information for the case studies. First,
at least two worship services from each congregation were attended and
detailed field notes were taken of all that occurred. Second, at least
one auxiliary meeting from each congregation was observed. Examples of
these meetings include Wednesday night youth group services and Sunday
school sessions. Third, at least one lay leader from each congregation
was interviewed to provide an additional perspective on the
congregation and its connections. Fourth, a focus group composed of a
diverse selection of members from each congregation was interviewed.
Finally, a survey of each member of the congregation was taken to
ascertain information on individual religious involvement. For this
particular paper, only field notes from the lay leader interviews,
focus groups, worship services, and auxiliary meetings are referenced.
Each interview is analyzed and coded thematically to highlight various
patterns and relevant observations.
Judicatory Interviews and Partner Organization Interviews
Between the months of September 1997 and April 1998, officials and
executives of regional judicatories were also interviewed. (See table
4) The purpose of these interviews was to gain information on the
nature of congregations and their connections from the unique
perspective of the regional unit of denominational structures. The
layout of the judicatory interviews mirrored that of the congregational
interviews but included questions more appropriate to the judicatory
context. A key informant from regional judicatories was interviewed in
person and the interview was recorded on audiotape for later
In addition, a list of all those organizations found partnering with
congregations was generated during the Spring of 1998. From this list a
select number of partner organizations was sampled to reflect the
general pattern of representative partnering. (See table 5) A key
informant from each partner organization was then interviewed in order
to ascertain information about the nature of the congregational
connection from the unique perspective of the organization itself. Most
interviews were conducted over the telephone and were recorded on
audiotape to be transcribed at a later date. In many cases the
information from these organizations differed from that received by the
congregations. In one case a particular organization denied ever having
networked with the congregation that claimed it as a partner
Both the judicatory interviews and the partner organization interviews
yielded a significant amount of data. This data is vital to
understanding how congregations in rural Alabama are organizing their
religious work. However, to keep this paper manageable this data has
not been incorporated. Indeed, the size and narrow focus of this paper
only requires an analysis of the congregational surveys, congregational
interviews, partner organization probes and of the case studies in
IV. Presentation of Findings
The purpose of this section is to summarize findings from the above
methods. As mentioned previously, this project has yielded an enormous
amount of data. However, a paper of this size can only address so much.
Therefore, this section seeks to avoid arbitrary references to the data
by highlighting only those findings that are most significant, most
pertinent and most representative of the study. The layout of this
section is divided into four parts to disclose the results of the
method section: (1) a demographic description of both counties, (2) a
comparison of the sampled congregations with the other congregations,
(3) results from the congregational surveys, and (4) results from case
study analysis. In particular, the case study section devotes attention
to an in-depth look at the nature of four rural congregations and their
connections. The case study findings will incorporate data from field
notes, congregational interviews, partner organization probes, and the
various case study methods themselves.
Demographic description of Chilton and Dallas County
Chilton County and Dallas County are located in the south-central
portion of the state of Alabama. Clanton, the township of Chilton
County, is located about one hour south from the capital city of
Birmingham. Selma, the township of Dallas County, is located about two
hours southwest of Birmingham. They are contiguous and representative
of rural Alabama in general. Yet they are both unique to one another.
The following statistics have been generated from 1990 United States
Census Data. The data reveals the similarities and differences of the
two counties and their reflection of rural areas in general. (See table
6-7) Chilton County is the smaller of the two occupying about 695
square miles. The total population in Chilton is 32,458 persons. On the
other hand, Dallas County occupies about 975 square miles and has a
total population of 48,130 persons. The above figures reveal that both
Chilton and Dallas have populations that lie outside urbanized areas
and are thus considered rural by default. The racial composition
of the two counties is largely a distinction between whites and blacks.
Less than two percent in both counties combined represent other races.
Yet the two counties are almost mirror opposites of one another.
Chilton County is majority white as the census data reveals that 88%
are white and only 11% are black. In contrast, Dallas County is
majority black. 58% of the total population in Dallas are black while
only 41% are white.
The educational attainment of the two counties is comparable as well.
The percentage of students in public schools and the percentage of
persons with high school diplomas are very similar in both counties.
However, differences are immediately visible when comparing the
percentage of college graduates. Indeed, the percentage of college
graduates in Dallas County almost doubles that of Chilton County (12.2%
and 7.5%, respectively). The greater number of colleges and
universities in Dallas County may explain this difference.
Very striking figures are present when looking at the socioeconomic
conditions of the two counties. Indeed, they give credence to the
literature that describes rural areas as increasingly poor. The median
household income in Chilton County is $21,627. This is to be contrasted
to Dallas County, visibly the poorer, which has a median household
income of $16,493. In addition, the median household value of specified
owner-occupied housing units in Chilton County is $42,500 while that of
Dallas County is $43,100. Chilton County has a work force of 14,752
person while Dallas County has a work force of 19,930 persons. Most
striking, however, are poverty level statistics. In Chilton County,
17.1% of the person live below the poverty level while 36.2% of the
persons in Dallas County live below the poverty level.
Comparison of sampled congregations with other congregations
Approximately 305 congregations were counted in both counties combined.
Forty of these congregations were randomly selected to represent the
sampled congregations. These sampled congregations are indeed
representative of the diverse distribution of congregations in both
Chilton and Dallas. This is most visible with the aid of pie charts.
Figure 1 illustrates the total distribution of congregations in rural
Alabama. Not counting the "focus" congregations, there are 237
the two counties. This represents a rich pluralism of denominations and
independent congregations; from Southern Baptists to Catholics, from
Mormons to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and from Muslims to the Beachy
Twenty-three of these congregations (approximately 10%) have been
sampled for the study. (See figure 2) As can be seen, the sampled
congregations are very proportionate to the total distribution of
This same representative proportion is also present in an isolated
analysis of the "focus" congregations. (See figures 3 and 4) There are
a total of sixty-eight "focus" congregations in both rural counties.
These congregations are tied to either the United Methodist Church; the
Episcopal Church; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod; the Assemblies
of God; or the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. Seventeen of
these congregations (approximately 25%) were randomly selected as
samples for the study.
Congregational Survey Results
The results of the congregational surveys provide detailed insight into
the demographic and resource aspects of all the sampled congregations.
Thus, these results can be generalized to represent all of the
congregations in rural Alabama in general. The surveys themselves have
been coded and entered into a spreadsheet/data management system for
quantitative analysis. The following summary highlights the more
expressive results from that analysis.
Ministers in rural Alabama noted that they have relatively small
numbers of church attendance and membership. The mean, or average, for
the number of people who attend worship services on an average weekend
is 100. The mean for the number of person on the membership role is
181. However, the best measurement for central tendency in this case is
that of the median, or the point below which half the cases fall. The
median for attendance is actually 53 persons while the median for
membership is actually 95 persons. Both figures reveal that, by and
large, rural churches are also small-membership churches. In addition,
84% of those surveyed noted that they only have one worship service on
an average weekend. The other sixteen percent were churches that host
Sunday evening services or churches that only host a Sunday morning
service every other week.
The survey reveals that the majority of members in these congregations
live relatively close to the church buildings. In fact, 78% of those
surveyed estimate that "about half" or more live within a 10 minute
drive of the building. Furthermore, the surveyed congregations are
composed of a white majority. 65% of those surveyed estimate that about
half or more are white (non-Hispanic) while only 35% estimate that
about half or more are African-American. Indeed, twenty-six of the
congregations I interviewed are white while only thirteen are
African-American. Only the Catholic parish in my study claimed full
The survey also has some interesting results along the lines of
denominational ties. Indeed, 84% of those surveyed estimate that about
half or more grew up in their particular denomination. Akin to this is
the result that 68% estimate that about half or more grew up in their
particular congregation. These numbers suggest strong denominational
cohesion and ties. On the other hand, denominational channels seem to
be less utilized for the clergy’s insurance or annuity plans.
Only 37% noted that the clergy receive insurance through the
denomination and only 50% noted that annuity and retirement plans are
purchased through the denomination.
Survey results also point to congregations in rural Alabama as having
formal processes and as leaning toward congregational polity. 68% of
those surveyed noted that their congregation is officially incorporated
and 62% noted that they have a written constitution and bylaws. In
addition, 66% of those surveyed noted that either the congregation or a
congregation’s board has the final say about who should become
the congregation’s clergy.
Finally, the congregational survey reveals that multiple publishing
houses are utilized as resources. By far the majority of publishers
being utilized by the congregations are denominationally affiliated.
However, some congregations are willing to go outside of their
denomination to utilize the materials of different denominations or
even of independent publishers such as David C. Cook. Figures 6 and 7
exemplify this by revealing the distribution of children’s
religious education materials and hymnals.
The purpose of the case studies is to provide an in-depth look into the
manifold life of a congregation. A general analysis of a
congregation’s identity and mission sets the context for a
particular analysis of how a congregation in rural Alabama organizes
its religious work. Data from the case studies is analyzed
qualitatively to highlight pertinent themes. The following will provide
a glimpse into the life of each case study congregation by revealing
its unique context, identity and mission with the focal purpose of
understanding its religious organization.
Lusk Assembly of God
Lusk Assembly of God is located about five miles north of the city of
Clanton in a small community known as Lomax. The neighborhood
surrounding the church appears to be largely African-American. All in
all it certainly emits a rural appearance. The church sits on a large
grassy acre with a bed of gravel for a parking lot. Divided into two
buildings, the congregation hosts a sanctuary as well as an add-on
building that is utilized for Sunday school space, fellowship dinners,
and ministerial offices. The church has been built within the last ten
years and is characterized by a mixture of brick and vinyl siding. It
is designed in the traditional build with an A-frame roof and a steeple.
The interior of the building is furnished with a pleasant mixture of
colors. A gray carpet covers the floor and rows of wooden pews with
blue cushions fill the room. The pews are equally divided into two
halves. Low-tiled ceilings with fluorescent light fixtures illuminate
the wooden paneling that surrounds the walls of the sanctuary. At the
front of the sanctuary is an elevated stage with chairs for the band
and choir. There are enough instruments on the stage for a five-piece
band (piano, keyboards, guitar, bass, and drum set). The pulpit is
centered at the front of the stage. A small wooden cross with a strip
of purple cloth resting on the horizontal beam is hung on the back
wall. Hymnals and chorus books, both published by Lifeway Press (AOG),
are stationed in the pews. Members dress neatly but casually, some even
wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
Of all the case studies, Lusk Assembly of God is by far the largest
attended congregation. On a number of occasions their Sunday services
had an attendance that exceeded sixty people. Most of the members of
this all-white congregation drive at least ten minutes each Sunday to
make it to the church building. In my visits to the congregation I was
struck by the high morale that each member has about their church and
about their role in it.
Four prevalent patterns need to be highlighted in any discussion of
Lusk’s identity and mission. First, Lusk distinguishes itself
openly as a Pentecostal church. Second, the members emphasize
fellowship as a significant component of who they are. Third,
denominational relations at Lusk Assembly of God are very strong and
cohesive. Finally, Lusk is very active with membership-centered
When asked to describe his congregation theologically, the pastor of
Lusk explicitly stated that "we are a Pentecostal church." Simply
stated, Pentecostal churches are distinguished from other conservative
Protestants in that they place a strong emphasis on the role of the
Holy Spirit. Members speak of the Spirit as aiding them in knowing what
to preach, what to sing, and how to make everyday decisions. Members
are not hesitant to mention that the role of the Spirit is central to
their understanding of church.
The Spirit is called upon during the worship services through prayer
and song. In fact, everything about the order of the service wants to
evoke the present of the Spirit. The songs are easy to sing and to
remember. When played with musical accompaniment in the form of
guitars, drums, and keyboards, the music takes on a very dramatic and
In each interview, members emphasized that the freedom of worship
available at Lusk is most important to them. Indeed, members close
their eyes and raise their hands during worship as if deeply moved by
the music. Healing, joy and answers to prayer are talked about in
accessible terms. Outward manifestations of the Spirit are also
accepted and emphasized. On two occasions I observed members trembling
and crying as they spoke in tongues.
Fellowship is crucial to the members understanding of church. Before
each service members chatted and laughed with one another as the Pastor
walked around the sanctuary greeting each and every member personally.
The greetings are repeated at the end of each service as well. In the
congregational interview, the pastor described the scene as follows:
Through my personal experience, a lot of people who attend this church,
when they come, they enjoy the personal fellowship that they have with
one another. The friendships that they develop. This congregation is a
caring congregations. And when people come, I think—I don’t
know if they—maybe that’s when they stay because
they’re looking for comfort, looking for friends, looking for
kindness and I believe that may be why they stay is because
that’s what they found. Whether they’re looking for that or
not, they like what they found.
In each interview members echo this statement and highlight the fact
that they have attained an intimate and family-like report with one
When members think of who they are as a church they think of their
denomination. In fact, each interview included references by members to
Lusk’s relationship with the Assemblies of God. In general,
members know that their Sunday school literature and other published
materials come from the national publishing house in Springfield,
Missouri. Before the morning service, weekly magazines published by the
AOG are distributed to each member. Announcements from the pulpit speak
of upcoming state meetings. Children and youth participate in summer
camps and retreat centers facilitated by the state AOG. Furthermore,
executives from the state offices visit the congregation as guest
When asked if he thought of Lusk as a strong Assembly of God church,
the pastor stated, "I would say it’s strong…The
congregation, you know, they believe in the Assembly of God
church…I wouldn’t say they’re exceptionally strong,
but they’re mainstream strong Assembly of God people." All of
this is of little surprise given the presence of the state offices. The
Assemblies of God have developed a very effective organizational
structure in Alabama that keeps them in close contact with individual
congregations. Members are not greatly concerned about the goings-on of
their denomination but they are very much aware of their connection and
they believe it provides a comfortable and secure structure for their
As observed above, Lusk is a membership-centered congregation that
emphasizes fellowship. Indeed, their programs of in-reach are extensive
and active. On Wednesday nights, Lusk offers programs entitled
"missionettes" and "rural rangers" (girls and boys respectively). They
also host adult Bible studies and youth services. Lusk has a full time
youth minister who heads one of the more active youth ministries in the
area. On Sundays, the congregation engages in a series of formal
activities such as Sunday school, children’s church, morning
services, and evening services. In addition,
an informal meal is held after each evening service. Sometimes the
youth order pizza and sometimes members simply bring refreshments. Lusk
is also active in various outreach ministries, though not as extensive
or involved as their in-reach ministries. Rather than initiate their
own outreach programs, Lusk partners with well-organized and
pre-existing agencies. During the holiday season, in particular, Lusk
aids the Department of Human Resources and the Chilton County Emergency
Assistance Center with financial assistance for local needy families.
(See table 8)
Centennial United Methodist Church
Centennial United Methodist Church is located in the small agricultural
town of Safford, approximately 15-20 miles west of Selma. The only
thing that seems to mark the existence of the town is a little green
road sign and a small Conoco gas station. Everywhere you look there are
mile long stretches of pastureland with grazing cattle.
The church building itself is hard to recognize from the small county
road that takes you to its driveway. The dense foliage of deciduous and
evergreen trees growing together in a seamless blend of hunter green
blocks the church from view. A small dirt driveway with lots of
potholes leads from the road to the red bricked steps of the church.
There is no parking lot only a grassy field. A small cemetery enclosed
by a chain link fence is set in the back yard. Built in the middle
1800’s, the little white church is a one-room building
constructed out of large wooden planks. A small porch with a set of
screen doors marks the only entrance.
Inside there are seven rows of small wooden pews. A strip of dark green
carpet stretches down the hardwood floors creating a walkway that
splits the pews into two equal halves. The carpet continues toward the
altar where it covers the entire stage in a beautiful hue of green. A
large open Bible is placed on the center pulpit at the front of the
stage. Many of the windows are opened to ventilate the
non-air-conditioned building. They are not made out of stained glass.
Four cylindrical lamps hang down from the rafters of the high ceiling.
While the aesthetics of the building seem pristine and timeless, almost
as if divorced from reality, the room is in fact full of the noise and
bustle of life. Each member is dressed in their Sunday bests as they
cordially greet one another. The members, most of whom are over the age
of sixty-five, have known each other for years.
Four major characteristics distinguish Centennial’s identity and
mission. The first characteristic concerns their unique demography. The
second characteristic is tied to their history as a congregation. Third
is their sense of fellowship. The fourth characteristic is that they
are a membership-centered congregation.
Centennial is the smallest congregation of the case studies. The
average attendance on the two Sundays that I visited was 9 members, a
figure that includes the pastor. Demographically speaking, all of the
members, with the exception of one young woman raised in the church,
are over sixty-five years of age. The members of the congregation have
careers in agriculture where they literally farm and live off of their
land. In describing his members, the pastor states, "You have,
basically you have four families…They’re farmers. Cattle.
Catfish. Big on catfish. All four families are involved in farming."
The small town in which the church is set is very much a part of the
"black belt south" and the majority of the population is
African-American. However, the members of the congregation are all
white, a characteristic that is more than a simple demographic
Established in 1859, Centennial has developed an identity that is
inextricably linked with its history. Everything at Centennial points
to this history. For instance the age of the members and their tenure
at the congregation is significant. Some members have been active in
the congregation for over fifty years. In addition, the architecture of
the building stands as a monument to the past and is maintained to
preserve that appeal. Even the bulletins for the Sunday morning
services have a picture of the building on the cover to celebrate this
Centennial was established as a Methodist Church along the old
stagecoach routes that ran across the state of Alabama. Since that time
it has retained a link to Methodism in spite of the many splits and
unions that have occurred within the denomination. The congregation
stays informed of denominational issues through the pastor, who works
with a charge of three congregations. In the congregational interview
the pastor states that the members "think of themselves as
Methodist…and let’s just say for whatever reason this
church was to close its doors, I know some of them would go up either
to Orville [a nearby Methodist congregation] or to some other little
Methodist church around." Yet members also articulate ambivalence
toward the United Methodist Church and its authority structures. The
pastor sees his members as concerned over the homosexual issue but as
not familiar with the doctrine and theology of the Methodist church. He
also does not think that his members "care one way or the other" about
their influence at the national level. "You know that’s way off
out there somewhere," he states.
The celebration of this history allows members to look back to the past
with pride. However, looking forward to the future yields visible
concern. Members of Centennial have a deep desire for the church to
grow. The fear, though, is that when the present members are gone the
church also will be gone.
Members place a great deal of emphasis and value on their fellowship
with one another. This fellowship can be described as a kinship or a
family-like atmosphere in which members know one another and care for
one another intimately. The order of service, the activities of
members, and the stories they tell all display this fellowship. This
characteristic is incorporated into the implicit theologies of the
laity as it is central to what they believe a church should be.
For Centennial, faith and fellowship are interwoven and inseparable.
Thus, its mission must be understood in light of this. The programs,
activities, and overall organizational structure of the church single
out fellowship as the congregation’s primary reason for being.
Programs are centered more around in-reach than outreach. Even when the
members step outside of their congregation they do so to fellowship
with others. After each Sunday morning service the members of the
congregation drive to the local Baptist church where they participate
in Sunday school. Support of outside ministries does not take on the
form of hands-on activities. Instead the congregation contributes to
outside ministries through financial giving. The United Methodist
Church facilitates most of the outreach ministries. (See table 9)
Riverton Church of God
Riverton Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) is located about five
miles southeast of Jemison, a small community in northern Chilton
County. Peach groves and residential homes grace both sides of the
road. The church building is a renovated schoolhouse. An A-frame roof
and a steeple have been placed on the building. Each window shields the
interior with vertical blinds. The building includes an adjacent living
area (parsonage-like) where the pastor and his family rest between
Sunday services. The full title of the church is Riverton Church of God
yet a large sign on the front of the building simply reads "Riverton
Inside there is a central hallway that runs from the main entrance to
the parsonage. Along the hallway are bulletin boards, handouts of
Church of God materials, bathrooms and smaller rooms for Sunday school
and other meetings. The sanctuary is a large room with lowered ceilings
that is entered from the hallway. The entire building has a new
"office-like" carpet. Instead of permanent pews there are rows of red
"pew-like" chairs that can easily be disconnected from one another and
moved to open up floor space. A small sound room and kitchen are
located at the back of the sanctuary. Toward the front of the building
is a raised stage on which sits a centered pulpit. On one side of the
pulpit is a piano and on the other side is a projector where
transparencies are used to assist in worship services. A baptismal has
been cut into the back of the stage. Many in the congregation dress
casually for worship services.
Riverton is a small white congregation with an average attendance of
twenty-five. Established in the late 1980’s the congregation has
already undergone many changes. Members have passed in and out of its
doors and the congregation has moved locations twice. In addition,
their pastor, who has been there since the beginning, recently
announced that he is moving to serve another church. Four
characteristics describe Riverton’s identity and mission: (1) a
charismatic orientation, (2) an emphasis on fellowship, (3) in-reach
programming, and (4) confusion about denominational ties.
Riverton has a charismatic orientation and emphasizes the role of the
Spirit in everyday life. In interviews, members articulate their belief
that the Spirit had led them to Riverton. The music that the
congregation utilizes for worship highlights the movement of the Spirit
as if in a fluid fashion. In response, members close their eyes and
raise their hands. On my two visits with the congregation, the pastor
utilized Biblical texts about the "fruits of the Spirit" for his
sermons. His preaching style was very informal and energetic as he
walked around the stage and shouted into the microphone. Members
clapped or shouted "A-men," in response. At the end of each service,
members approached the altar for prayer, healing, or to be anointed
with oil. Often members were emotionally moved to tears by the flow of
Riverton also emphasizes fellowship. This seems to be a common
denominator in most rural congregations. In my interviews with members,
the very first thing they talked about was the sense of fellowship that
Riverton offers. Members discussed their joy in being part of a
congregation where they were more than just a number and where everyone
knew their name. In their perception, each member of this congregation
was loved and accepted by one another in spite of anything they may
have done in the past. At the end of one service I asked a member why
he had joined Riverton. He simply smiled and said, "I love it here." I
asked him why he loved it and he responded, "I love it here because
people love me." Even the architecture of the building enhances the
importance of fellowship. Unlike traditional church buildings, Riverton
meets in a renovated schoolhouse. There are lowered ceilings,
fluorescent lights, and chairs instead of pews. It all makes for a much
more comfortable and personable environment.
Like previous case studies, the mission of Riverton is centered more
towards in-reach than outreach. Each Sunday the church hosts two
services, morning and evening, and an hour of Sunday school. Members
talk and relate to one another in an intimate way. Often the pastor
calls out names of members for use in his sermon illustrations. Members
look forward to being with one another and to hosting monthly
In the congregational interview, the pastor stated that, "we want to
reach out to people rather than be just another church on the
block…we try to title the church as a ministry rather than a
church." Yet there are no formal outreach programs. Instead, Riverton
has an informal emphasis on outreach. Members state that they help
others in the community through their everyday relationships. In turn,
members are encouraged to invite people with whom they work to visit
the church. Indeed, most of Riverton’s ministries are in the form
of financial giving and are facilitated by the Church of God
denomination. (See table 10)
In the congregational interview, the pastor noted that Riverton is not
a strong Church of God congregation "because it’s so new.
They’re just getting to know about the Church of God, how it
originated, how old it is, and they’re inquisitive, no negative
ideas or thoughts, just like a little baby learning and growing."
However, members seem not only confused about their denomination but
also ambivalent towards it. In the focus group interview, members
discussed that they had come to Riverton from other denominations. And
when I discussed their current denominational ties, members seemed
irritated and bothered by the sense of having an authority structure.
Only the pastor had contact with denominational officials. In fact,
members were very confused on how the local overseer would supply them
with a new pastor.
Teton Baptist Church
Teton Baptist Church is located on Broad Street about one mile north of
downtown Selma. The architecture of the yellow-bricked building is
untraditional. Its round dome, curved balcony and curved pews resemble
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The surrounding community is
largely an African-American neighborhood for low-income residents.
However, the membership of Teton Baptist does not reflect this
socioeconomic surrounding. Indeed, the pastor states that there are
even millionaires in his church.
Inside, curved wooden pews are divided into three sections by strips of
red carpet that run up towards the altar. Peace lilies are placed
liberally around the sanctuary and on the stage. At the front of the
stage sits a traditional communion table with the words, "This Do In
Remembrance Of Me" etched on its face. Offering plates, more peace
lilies, and a small golden cross sit on top of the communion table.
Directly above the communion table and centered on the stage is the
pulpit. Behind the pulpit sits a series of chairs for ministers and
guest speakers. The stage is flanked on the left and the right by the
American flag and the Christian flag. A large clock is hung on the wall
in the back of the stage in full view of the audience.
Teton Baptist is a central actor in the African-American community of
Selma. They have a rich history that stretches to the middle
1800’s. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have spent a
significant amount of time in this church. Furthermore, in September of
1997, Louis Farakhan was invited to speak at Teton Baptist. His
presence caused a great deal of controversy in the Selma community, but
it exhibits the stance that Teton wishes to take—one of
tolerance, "Afro-sensitivity" and civic responsibility. The following
is a glimpse of Teton’s identity and mission through the
characteristics of history, afro-sensitivity, a pillar church in
transition, and denominational tensions.
Without a doubt, members of Teton Baptist church share a proud history.
Each interview and visit with the congregation mentioned this history
and highlighted its importance. Located approximately one mile north of
downtown Selma, Teton had played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights
era. "Teton, the home of the first mass meeting for the Voter’s
Right Movement," is printed proudly upon each Sunday morning worship
Members tell stories of how Martin Luther King Jr. attended Teton on
his visits to Selma. In fact, many members participated with King in
the "Selma March" from Selma to Montgomery. In addition, the first two
presidents of the National Baptist Convention came out of this
congregation. These stories are mentioned and discussed from the
pulpit, during Sunday school classes and in informal conversations.
However, if one were to somehow miss these historical stories then they
need look no further than the architecture of the building to find it.
Constructed in the 1920’s, Teton was designed with two equal
porches, one facing Broad Street (a primary road leading to downtown
Selma) and the other facing Minter Street (a simple side street leading
through a residential community). For many years Teton was forced to
utilize Minter St. as their address. Now they can be reached at 1431
The pastor best articulates the congregation’s identity and
mission when he states that the church is "Christo-centric and
Afro-sensitive." Members are not shy about their Christian heritage. In
a few interviews, members commented at length on why "Christian
principles" are important and why they are being taught to the
congregation. Furthermore, in each Sunday school class the Bible is
utilized as a central point of authority. Even the preaching conveys
this emphasis on Christian principles. The pastor often utilizes the
character of Jesus Christ to illustrate a superior role model that his
congregation should look to and follow. Even the word "Jesus" itself
takes on deeper meaning when sung by the choir or articulated in a
response from the congregation.
As an all-black congregation, Teton exhibits a special sensitivity to
African-American concerns. Illustrations in preaching and teaching are
used to address the specific needs of the African-American community.
Members are encouraged to vote for prominent African-American
candidates to lead community offices. These concerns are deeply valued
by the congregation and they contribute largely to the religious
identity of the congregation.
Historically, Teton Baptist has been a "pillar" church in the
African-American community of Selma. They have longstanding ties with
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, NAACP, the Voter’s
Right Museum, and the Selma Trail. (See table 11) The church also has
ongoing relationships with various African-American "sister churches"
in the community. It has attracted many of the city’s movers and
shakers. At one service that I visited, a judge at the Dallas County
Courthouse had come by specifically to thank members for re-electing
him. The history, heritage, and finances of the congregation are
devoted to sustaining the greater community of Selma.
However, Teton is now a pillar church in transition. The proud history
of the congregation remains yet the church attendance has declined
significantly. In turn, Teton’s influence in the community of
Selma has also declined. Members are aware of this current state and
are not reacting with indifference. Instead they are taking on a
proactive stance in light of it. Indeed, one Trustee I interviewed
mentioned that they are currently implementing plans for
re-structuring. A new pastor has been hired and the church constitution
and by-laws are being re-examined.
As a National Baptist Church, Tabernacle has a rich history of ties to
their National Baptist Convention. The pastor, however, points out that
these ties may change in the future. The Dr. Lyons scandal has caused
much ambivalence in their relations to the national convention. It has
also unearthed some ambivalence at deeper levels. Individuals are
confused about the organizational structure of the national convention
and they are concerned that power may be manipulated at various levels
V. Theological Reflections
A section of theological reflections is quite appropriate in light of
the research seminar overseeing this paper. But more than this,
theology is at the heart of any study of congregations. Robert J.
What makes congregations the special places they are is that they are
focused on God, in whom they live, move, and have their being. Their
members congregate to remember how God has acted in the history of the
world and in their own lives. They congregate to discern what is
happening to them and to the world today, and to listen for where God
is leading them. Theology is an expression of the relation between God
and such congregations of faithful, seeking people.
Indeed, my study of congregations may also be viewed as a study of
institutions that embody theology. Thus, the logical next step is to
incorporate the above sociological descriptions into a practical
A theological analysis of congregations in rural Alabama is an
audacious task at best. On one level, congregations are complex
entities that have both explicit and implicit theologies. On another
level, variant theological perspectives are found within any
congregational study. Theological nuances exist between clergy and
laity, between young and old members, between congregations and their
national denomination, and between the congregation itself and the
field researcher studying it. Furthermore, the articulated theologies
of a congregation are not always manifested or put into practice by its
members. Only so much can be said about this complex theological
matrix, especially given the limited time and resources of this
project. Therefore, this section provides only a simple theological
analysis of general themes to serve as a foundation for future and more
exhaustive theological analyses.
I have isolated three theological trajectories relevant to my project:
(1) the theological dialectic between congregations and their national
denominations, (2) the general theological expression of rural
congregations, and (3) the theological expression conditioned by
organizational networks. The first theological trajectory is most
appropriate to this theological analysis and receives more attention
than the other two. However, the following section discusses all three
trajectories against the backdrop of a four step practical theological
model. It is helpful to study my heuristic device found in Figure 7.
*The general theological expression of rural congregations
*The theological dialectic between congregations and denominations
*The theological expression conditioned by organizational networks
Figure 7 – The Process of Theological Reflection on Congregations in Rural Alabama
Step 1: Theological Description
The first step in models of practical theology is description. Thomas
Groome refers to this as "naming the present praxis" while Don Browning
entitles it "descriptive theology." Simply stated, the first step in
practical theology is an account that presents a picture of how
congregations think about God and why this is important to them.
At this point we are ahead of the game. The previous section (IV), and
its case studies in particular, have presented a thorough description
of the identity and mission of congregations in rural Alabama. And as
Schreiter states, "describing the situation is part of theological
reflection, not just a prelude to it." That section reveals that many
congregations emphasize their proud histories. Others are significantly
conditioned by their unique demography. And still others are influenced
by their charismatic and Pentecostal orientations. However, three
themes, corresponding to the three theological trajectories, stand out
more than the others do.
First, congregations have active ties to their national denominations.
These ties may be either close as with Lusk Assembly of God or they may
be strained as with Teton Baptist Church. Nevertheless, all four case
study congregations are engaged with their denominations. They receive
informational materials from national offices, they utilize religious
education materials, they fund denominational ministries, and they
participate in denominational events. Thus, we see the first trajectory
as a theological dialectic between congregations and their
Second, rural congregations emphasize their family-like fellowship.
Members of these congregations continually highlighted this fellowship
in interviews. Indeed, an atmosphere of fellowship is central to what
they believe a church should be. In sum, the ecclesiology of rural
congregations requires fellowship. Here, we see the second trajectory
as a general theological expression among rural congregation.
Third, these congregations revolve around membership-centered, in-reach
programs. Niemen states that, "the way groups organize themselves is
obviously suggestive about how they view both the nature of the church
and, by implication, the nature of God." These programs are an
extensive interweaving of both theology and organization. This reveals
the third trajectory s a theological expression conditioned by
Step 2: The theology of faith traditions
The second step in a model of practical theology involves an
exploration of established faith traditions. Groome refers to this step
as "making accessible the Christian story and vision" whereas Browning
entitles it "historical theology." Both refer to a stage that moves
beyond descriptions of human experiences and practices. This step is
more theoretical and requires research on the faith traditions in which
congregations are rooted. This is done by examining the historical
markers such as statements of faith, creeds, or doctrines.
Step 3: The process of reciprocal influence
The third step of practical theology involves a reciprocal relationship
between the actual practices of local congregations and their
historical faith traditions. It is a mutual relationship where both
practice and theory affect one another. Schreiter states that this
differs from traditional theological work because,
rather than simply using historical sources as a measuring rod against
which to critique the current situation, practical theology calls for a
conversation between the two. Yes, the ideas and narratives of the
tradition should call your current practices into account. But the
things you are discovering about God can also bring about new
Complementing this is Groome’s "dialectical hermeneutic" and Browning’s "systematic theology."
Step 4: Implementation of theologies as renewed practice
The fourth and final step in practical theology is a movement from
theory back to practice. This step takes what has been learned from the
first three steps and implements them back into the experiences and
practices of congregations. It is no wonder that Groome refers to this
as "decision/response for lived Christian faith" and Browning entitles
this step "strategic practical theology."
Steps two, three, and four of the above practical theology model is
best illustrated in the following analysis of the first theological
trajectory. Each case study reveals that there is a dialectical
comparison between the practices of local congregations and the
gatekeepers of faith traditions, their national denominations. The
revised Handbook of Denominations describes the theology of the
Assemblies of God as:
ardently fundamentalist…[and] Arminian; there is strong belief
in the infallibility and inspiration of the Bible, the fall and
redemption of the human race, baptism in the Holy Spirit, a life of
holiness and separation from the world, divine healing, the second
advent of Jesus and his millennial reign, eternal punishment for the
wicked, and eternal bliss for believers.
This description is loaded and complex, yet Lusk Assembly of God
adheres to this theology. They describe themselves as Pentecostal,
speaking in tongues is regarded as baptism of the Holy Spirit, the
Bible is elevated as their central authority, and they encourage one
another to live a life separate from that of the world. In turn, Lusk
can encourage its denomination to emphasize intimate, family-like
fellowships. Members would greatly respect a denominational office that
practices this fellowship in its relations with local congregations.
The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist body in the United
States. Traditionally, its theological criteria have centered on the
Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Their theology includes:
the doctrines of the Trinity, the natural sinfulness of humankind, its
fall and the need of conversion and repentance, freedom of the will,
justification by faith, sanctification and holiness, future rewards and
punishments, the sufficiency of the Scriptures for salvation, the
enabling grace of God, and perfection.
This theology is certainly represented in the sermons of Centennial
United Methodist Church. Members articulate a compassion for one
another, for worship, for personal piety and for evangelization.
Furthermore, their informal relations with a local Baptist church
reflect the ecumenical initiatives of the national denomination.
However, Centennial feels alienated from their denomination because of
their rural demography. In addition, they express that they are
distanced from crucial discussion on issues, such as homosexuality,
that are currently facing the national denomination. Centennial has a
long proud history and they believe their intimate fellowship has great
theological value for their national denomination. The national
denomination would do well to better familiarize itself with local
congregations such as Centennial.
The Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) came into being in the late
1800’s. Their title is derived from the Apostle Paul’s
reference to the "Church of God." Their theology is Pentecostal and
justification by faith, sanctification, baptism of the Holy Spirit,
tongue speaking, the need to be born again, fruitfulness in Christian
living, and a strong interest in the premillennial second coming of
In addition, they rely heavily on the Bible and stress holiness tenets.
The pastor of Riverton Church of God has received education at Lee
College, the Church of God School of Theology. Thus his sermons reflect
this theology. The membership, however, consists of transplants from
other denominations and their theology is more variant. In general they
respond well to the pastor yet there are visible signs of confusion
over some theological matters. Like other congregations, Riverton
members highlight the love and acceptance found in their small
fellowship. Yet, Riverton has very little knowledge of their Church of
God affiliation. The denominational offices would do well to introduce
themselves to the warm fellowship at Riverton and to take steps to
educate Riverton members on Church of God theology, programs, and
The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. is the largest black
Baptist denomination. Traditionally, their theology is slightly more
Calvinistic yet they generally adhere to the following principles of
the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible as the sole rule of
life; the Lordship of Jesus Christ; the inherent freedom of persons to
approach God for themselves; the granting of salvation through faith by
way of grace and contact with the Holy Spirit…baptism of
believers by immersion; the independence of the local church; the
church as a group of regenerated believers who are baptized upon
confession of faith; infant baptism as unscriptural and not to be
practiced; complete separation of church and state; life after death;
the unity of humankind; the royal law of God; the need of redemption
from sin; and the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom.
Teton Baptist Church certainly stands in a black Baptist tradition that
is theologically conservative and socially liberal. Teton emphasizes
the authority of the Bible in both Sunday school and worship services.
Membership requires a profession of faith, sanctioning by the church
body, and baptism by immersion. At the same time, members note
political differences with their denomination, particularly in light of
the Dr. Lyons scandal. Teton’s prestigious history as a pillar
church in the Selma community can contribute to the proud heritage of
the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. In turn, the national
denomination would do well to address the members concerns over abuses
of power and authority in the denomination.
The second and third theological trajectories do not have particular
faith traditions in which to measure themselves. Thus, a theological
analysis of these trajectories may seem somewhat contrived. But these
trajectories are indeed very important if one is to provide an overall
theological reflection on how congregations in rural Alabama organize
their religious work. As Niemen argues, "it is simply inadequate to
study only the written documents from a denomination and then imagine
one can portray the complex theological work of a living and vibrant
organization." He continues to state that this is "harder for many
professionally-trained theologians to embrace…[but] the greatest
research attention should be given to living theological expressions,
such as actions, spoken words, habits, norms, and so on." Rural
congregations and their organizational networks may not have historical
documents that record their traditional theological expression. But
rural congregations and their organizational networks have been studied
for years and a large amount of comparative literature is available.
The second theological trajectory highlights the presence of a general
theological expression among rural congregations. This is echoed in the
literature on rural congregational studies. Set in rural contexts,
these congregations struggle with poverty and other crucial issues in
the wake of the farm crisis. But even more so they value intimate,
family-like fellowship. This fellowship is more than mere description.
Indeed, as articulated by members, it is their theological expression.
The third theological trajectory highlights the presence of a
theological expression conditioned by the organizational networks of
congregations. This is a major theme in this paper. Indeed, as the
organizational structures of denominations change so do their
theological make-up. Congregations in rural Alabama are involved in
organizational networks that both reflect their theology and influence
their theology. In particular, they are involved in organizational
networks that are intensely relational rather than programmatic. This
is also echoed in the literature. The programs that these congregations
implement are primarily membership-centered, in-reach programs.
What are at stake theologically are congregations that value
denominational ties, intimate fellowships, and membership-centered
programs. These aspects are not always valued by national
denominations, urban areas, or outreach oriented congregations.
Congregations in rural Alabama have vibrant theologies and networking
schemes that can contribute to the larger society. Their voice should
be heard. The theologies of national denominations, urban areas, and
other religious organizations would benefit from the analysis of the
above three theological trajectories.
Changes in American society are becoming more and more visible as we
enter the 21st Century. Indeed, denominations, those traditional
organizational structures of American religion, are currently
struggling with these changes. As they struggle, newly emerging forms
of religious organization are developing alongside. Both of the
phenomena combined are leading to theories that denominations are
breaking down. In fact, the purpose of the Organizing Religious Work
Project is to test these theories with empirical evidence from all
three levels of denominational structures and from other organizational
The conclusions of my particular study of congregations in rural
Alabama do not necessarily support these theories. Instead, a picture
of general denominational cohesion is present. Though sometimes
strained, congregations in rural Alabama continue to receive materials
from their denominations and they continue to participate in
denominational events. Congregations are involved with various partner
organizations but not to the extent that would exhibit denominational
So what is it about rural Alabama that resists denominational
breakdown? Well, as this paper has revealed, rural contexts are quite
unique. Rural Alabama in particular exhibits a lack of pluralism, as
associated with more urban areas. It seems, therefore, that rural
congregations are shielded, or "insulated," from the pressures of
modernity and are thus shielded from denominational breakdown. This is
merely a preliminary finding at this point in time. As publications
begin to emerge from the ORW project then a more rigorous comparison
with urban research sites can be made.
Nevertheless, congregations in rural Alabama do exhibit very clear
patterns in their organizational networking. First, these congregations
continue to utilize their denominational channels as noted above.
Second, these congregations highly emphasize fellowship in their
tight-knit, family-like communities. This sense of fellowship is of
utmost importance to the congregation’s sense of identity and
mission. And third, congregations in rural Alabama operate in
relational processes. The particular programs that these congregations
do conduct are membership-centered, in-reach programs. The
particularities of these findings can assist local congregations in the
development and maintenance of their religious work.
Interwoven with the above organizational patterns is a highly valued
theology. Indeed, congregations in rural Alabama express three
theological trajectories from which others will benefit. The dialectic
between congregations and their national denominations is very
important for national offices that to continue to want strong cohesive
ties with their local congregations. The general theological expression
of rural congregations stems from the emphasis on fellowship. Many
individuals are experiencing God in these intimate fellowships. In
fact, the ecclesiology of rural congregations cannot be separated from
this sense of fellowship. There is also a theological expression
conditioned by organizational networks. The membership centered,
in-reach programs of rural congregations are examples of this
interweaving of both theology and organization.
A descriptive analysis of how religious work is being organized in
rural Alabama is an audacious task at best. Indeed, the process of
analysis is never-ending. Yet even a controlled project of this size
yields significant and interesting finding. The above endeavor has most
certainly benefited me personally. The projects finding are also
beneficial on a scholarly level, a congregational level, and a
theological level. Good most certainly can come out of rural Alabama.