I just finished a book recommended by Greg Call last month, The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1992) by Finke and Stark. The authors spend most of the first six chapters restating the history of religion in America which, in their analysis, most previous writers have gotten completely wrong. Previous writers have seen religion on the decline since the Revolution, viewing mainline Protestant churches (Epicopalians, Lutherans, Prebyterians, old Congregationalists) as the heart of the story and newer denominations or sects (early on, Methodists and Baptists; later, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Mormons) as distractions somehow removed from the main storyline. Backed by better data than the traditionalists, Finke and Stark show how wrong this story is.
Where traditionalists saw a decline in religious adherence or attendance, Finke and Stark see a decline in mainline adherence and attendance accompanied by strong growth of "sects." Overall religiosity is fairly constant. Furthermore, they describe a process whereby sects (showing high tension between the community of members and the surrounding society) gradually accommodate and reduce tension, becoming "churches," but also thereby losing vigor and dedication, resulting in long-term declines. But sects rush in where mainline denominations now fear to tread. In the 19th century Methodists were sect-like and grew; in the 20th century, they accommodated, became church-like, and stagnated.
IN THE LAST CHAPTER OF THE BOOK Finke and Stark state analytical conclusions in terms of a rational choice model of church membership and activity. In a cost-benefit scenario, the key point is that religion is a collective good produced by the religious community, so the benefits are not independent of the costs. The benefits of membership in a high-cost sect are considerably greater to most members than the benefits of membership in a low-cost church. Contrast attending a half-empty church where people are skilled at comparmentalizing their church role from daily life and are quite free about expressing their doubts with attending a more-than-full church where people are zealously committed and often express their abounding faith and commitment. If you have any background in economics or its cousins, the data and analysis presented by Finke and Stark make perfect sense. They have it right.
There is little discussion of Mormons in this book, but the application is obvious. The Mormon Church is a high-cost, high-benefit denomination, a "sect" in the non-pejorative sense used by the authors. The Church has consistently maintained that position, and has reaped the benefits of consistent, significant growth along with high levels of participation and commitment by its members. The analysis of Finke and Stark suggests the Church is on solid ground in resisting calls for accommodation and reform that would go down the path so recently illustrated by the RLDS Church, which renamed itself The Community of Christ as part of its mainstreaming project. They even redesignated their homepage from www.rlds.org to www.cofchrist.org. Now that's dedication.
I don't believe their analysis exhausts the inquiry regarding how a denomination or an individual should approach doctrine, history, and church governance questions, but it certainly makes the consequences for a church as an organization much clearer. So if becoming a "mainstream church" is the equivalent of an organizational death sentence, why is the Mormon Church suddenly trying so hard to be regarded as a mainstream Christian denomination? Is this just a PR line, or is accommodation starting to happen?
[edited 11/1, putting that pesky second "m" in all my "accommodations."]