Academic Programs 

Avoiding Denominational Decline (RS-656)
Summer 2007

Questions addressed in this on-line course will focus on what the purposes of denominations are currently, and what seem to be major strengths and stresses in present “loyalty” of lay members, clergy, congregations and regional bodies to their denominations. The first sessions will frame the discussion by giving an overview of the rise of various denominations in America and some historical reasons for their fluctuations in growth. Subsequent sessions will explore the current work of denominations in uniting their members and constituent organizations locally, regionally, nationally and globally; as well as in maintaining theological standards, providing qualified clergy, worship and educational material, and other resources and services to congregations. Questions about what conflicts are particularly divisive within denominations presently, and what benefits and costs congregations may perceive in either staying or leaving their denominations, will be explored. Students will be encouraged to reflect on their own denominations in light of these questions.


Meeting Day, Time and Dates: 
ONLINE – Monday, May 28 through Friday, June 29

Adair Lummis
Faculty Associate in Research

Contact Information:
(860) 509-9547


Course Syllabus

Course Web Site

Course Description and Objectives

The questions above will be examined through various conceptual lenses, including “secularization,” “pluralism”, “modernism,” “postmodernism,” “privatization of religion,” “congregationalism,” and “diversity: racial, cultural and theological.” The course lectures and readings will concentrate on a sociological approach to studying contemporary (primarily Protestant) denominations in the United States.

However, students are welcomed to make comparisons in their on-line responses and in their final essays between developments in Christian denominations and contemporary movements within Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or another old or new religion.

Course Requirements include:

Weekly: This involves doing all of the assigned reading, answering at least one question a week posed by the instructor with each twice-weekly lecture, and commenting on at least one of the answers written by another student. 30% of final grade

Mid-term paper: This is about a 500-word paper, in which the student gives a general proposal for her/his final essay. The final essay is to be a comparison between TWO Christian denominations OR one Christian denomination and a movement within another religious tradition. One of the Christian denominations selected must be included among the eight denominations discussed historically, sociologically, and theologically in the edited book by David Roozen and James Nieman, Church, Identity and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005).

In this mid-term proposal the student is expected to name the denominations or other religious body selected, why these are of interest to the student, and how he or she intends to approach the comparison. This will allow the instructor to give individual feedback and assistance on the topic. 20% of final grade

Final essay: This 1500-2000 word essay should compare two Christian denominations or one denomination/sect/movement of another faith through using the conceptual lenses, as detailed above. The essay should also make reference to assigned reading where appropriate, as well as using other literature, current events, web searches, interviews (if desired), hopes and fears – in projecting answers to: which of these denominations/movements will decline, grow or change in the future and why. 50% of the final grade


Texts: All required reading will be available on line, with the exception of:. David Roozen and James Nieman, Church, Identity and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005). Several copies of the Roozen & Nieman book will be on reserve in the Hartford Seminary Library.

Format: Short lecture on the topic with questions for discussion will be posted twice a week; typically Monday and Thursday. Students’ responses to one question will be expected by Saturday, with their responses to comments of at least one other students by Sunday. In some week, students’ papers sent the instructor would be the primary writing assignment.

Course Schedule

Week One: What is a “denomination” anyway? Views through various conceptual lenses

Lecture 1 Developing the definitions of “denomination” as Christian groups organized across congregations and grew in the United States.

Lecture 2 Lenses for viewing denominations: modernism, postmodernism, secularization, diversity, pluralism and institutional isomorphism.

Reading for Week One

Martin Marty, “Protestant Christianity in the World and in America.” Pp. 24-46 in Jacob Neusner, Ed., World Religions in America: An Introduction (Third Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

William M. Newman & Peter L. Halvorson, “Organizing Religions in American History.” Pp. 17-36 in Newman & Halvorson, Atlas of American Religion: The Denominational Era, 1776-1990. Walnut Creek, CA; AltaMira Press, 2000.

Nancy Ammerman, “Denominations: Who and What are We Studying?” Pp. 111-133 in R.B Mullin and R.E Richey, Eds, Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretative Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Week Two: The building blocks and competitors to denominations: other kinds of religious organizations

Lecture 3 The centrality of congregations to denominations and “congregationalism.”

Lecture 4 “Movements”, “special interest groups,” “parachurch organizations,” “cults,” “sects” and “new religions” - how do these differ, flow from/into and challenge denominations?

Reading for Week Two

Dan Olson, “Fellowship Ties and the Transmission of Religious Identity.” Pp. 32-53 in Jackson Carroll and Wade Clark Roof, eds., Beyond Establishment: Protestant Identity in a Post-Protestant Age. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.

R. Stephen Warner, “The Place of the Congregation in Contemporary American Configuration.” Pp. 145-182 in Warner, A Church of Our Own: Disestablishment and Diversity in American Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Scott Thumma, “The Shape of Things to Come: Megachurches, Emerging Churches, and Other New Religious Structures Supporting an Individualized Spiritual Identity.” Pp. 185-206 in Charles Lippy, ed., Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions, Westport, CT; Praeger, 2006

Week Three: Boundaries for Denominational National Identity, Structures, and Strength

Lecture 5 Denominations as national structures with distinctive theologies

Lecture 6 Midpoint review of course, and instructions for final paper proposal

Reading for Week Four

Read: David A. Roozen and James R. Nieman, “Introduction.” Pp. 1-34 in Roozen and Nieman, eds. Church, Identity and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005).

Skim & then focus on one denomination in book: Roozen & Nieman, op cit., pp. 35-587.

Week Four: Diversity and Pluralism Within and Between Denominations and Religions

Lecture 7 Cultural, social and religious diversity within and between congregations

Lecture 8 Cultural, social and religious diversity within and between denominations

Reading for Week Four

Robert Wuthnow, “How Congregations Manage Diversity.” Pp. 230-258 in America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2005.

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, “The Organization of Religion in Internally Similar Congregations.” Pp. 135-151 in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000.

Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, “Why ‘Mainline’ Denominations Decline.” Pp. 235-283 in Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Week Five: What is the future of American denominations?

Lecture 9 Current divisions within and sources of strength for different denominations

Lecture 10 Course summary and instructions for final essay

Reading for Week Five

Read/skim for themes and concepts:

David A. Roozen, “National Denominational Structures’ Engagement with Postmodernity: An Integrative Summary from and Organizational Perspective, “ Pp. 588-624 in Roozen & Nieman

James R. Nieman, “The Theological Work of Denominations.” Pp. 625-653 in Roozen & Nieman


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