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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.

I. Introduction

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 rural Alabama.

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 modern societies.

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 of findings.

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 particular denomination.

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 exponentially.

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 ‘post-modern’ organizations."

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 work.

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 congregations.

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, high-paying jobs.

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 congregations.

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.

Denominational relationships

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 able ministers.

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.

III. Methods

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.

County Selection

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.

Church List

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.

Congregational Survey

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 analysis.

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.

Congregational Interview

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 important.

Case Studies

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 transcription.

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 organization.

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 particular.

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 congregations in

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 Amish.


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 congregations.

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 integration.

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.










Case Studies

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 programs.

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 energetic dimension.

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 another.

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 speakers.

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 congregation.

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 description.

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 history.

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 Church."

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 the service.

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 fellowship meals.

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 bulletin.

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 Broad Street.

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 of authority.

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. Schreiter states,

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 theological analysis.

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 denominations.

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 organizational networks.

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 theological understanding.

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 emphasizes:

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 Christ.

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 polity.

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 faith:

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.


VI. Conclusions

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 networks.

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 breakdown.

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.



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