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Strong and Weak Churches and The Question of Authority

The Vanishing Boundaries survey lends credence to Dean M. Kelley's (1977) thesis of strong and weak churches which he develops in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion. He argues that strong churches require belief in fundamental principles, are more authoritarian, present concrete answers to life's problems and make considerable demands of their members. After all, as Kelley argues, "What costs nothing, accomplishes nothing. If it costs nothing to belong to such a community, it can't be worth much (p. 53)" Weak churches, on the other hand, do not claim to have the exclusive truth, are reluctant to impose their beliefs on others, do not demand commitment and rank individualism high. Perhaps the most important distinction, according to Kelley, is that strong churches provide "meanings," or concrete answers to life questions which the church claims to be exclusively true, while weak churches merely provide "notions," or possible answers. Since the 1960s, the general trend has been for the strong churches to gain members, while weak churches lose them.

Laurence Iannaccone (1994/1996) statistically tested and expanded Kelley's thesis and relates it to rational choice theory. His analysis focuses on one trait: "the degree to which a group limits and thereby increases the cost of nongroup activities, such as socializing with members of other churches or pursuing 'secular' pastimes" (p. 51). Iannaccone argues that strict churches, especially those which require members to set themselves apart from others in behavior and dress, are stronger churches because the strict requirements weed out people who are not committed. This leaves strict churches with congregations full of committed members, while the congregations of lenient churches are laden with "free riders" who do as litde as possible and still reap the benefits. In describing free riders, Iannaccone states, "their mere presence dilutes a group's resources, reducing the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy and the like" (p. 53).

Despite it's status as a growing church, Unity does not exhibit the characteristics of a strong or strict church as outlined by Kelley or Iannaccone. Unity does not require members to believe any one thing, although the above discussion of beliefs shows that adherence to the basic tenets of New Thought philosophy is considerable. The freedom allowed to individuals creates an atmosphere which is far from authoritarian, but the church does present concrete answers to life's problems that it argues can be experientially tested and proven true. And, traditionally, Unity does not make strong demands on members, either in the way of enforcing beliefs or by demanding money or time. In Iannaccone's terms, Unity is most certainly a lenient church, since the costs of non-Unity activities are very low.

Since Unity is a lenient church, it would be expected to have less than stellar attendance patterns and a substantial share of free riders. Although further research will be needed to determine true attendance rates for Unity, this research shows that half of the attendees in a given service at the Unity Church in Albuquerque could be considered committed, since they say they attend once a week or more. This leaves half of the congregation as potential "free riders," even though two-thirds of them attend two to three times a month. Although it is suggested that the survey respondents are attracted to Unity because of the low demands, those same low demands might lead to a less-than-vibrant church which won't be able to sustain programs because of lack of financial and volunteer resources. The dilemma that Unity faces as it attracts a larger audience, then, is how to foster a more committed congregation without strictness and demands.

In evaluating the options for mainline churches, Hoge et al. (1994) contend that to increase membership, liberal churches need to either recapture religious authority or build a church without authority. The difficulty with recapturing authority, however, is that it would offend many liberal Protestants, who place great importance on the very factors which cause people to question authority in the first place: liberal higher education, pluralism and cross-cultural awareness (p. 207). They argue that the large group of lay liberals in their study would respond negatively to increased authority and create schisms within churches.

Hoge et al.'s second option for liberal Protestant churches is to minister to spiritual seekers by providing religious or spiritual answers to life's questions while leaving ample room for pluralism and individual choice. The Bible, they argue, would have to become a "spiritual or moral resource" among a variety of resources rather than a final authority. In addition, churches would have to accept the fact members of non-authoritarian churches would be less committed financially and programatically. Finally, the authors suggest that congregations could specialize according to local needs (pp. 210-211).

Unity appears to be an example of how this second option can work, with some qualifications. Unity's success or failure in implementing the components of this option of a church without authority could therefore have implications for mainline denominations which wish to attract the same audience.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.