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The Megachurch and the Mainline

Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-first Century

Religious traditions provide the stories and rituals that define the core values of church members. Yet modern life in America can make those customs seem undesirable, even impractical. As a result, many congregations refashion church traditions so they may remain powerful and salient. How do these transformations occur? How do clergy and worshipers negotiate which aspects should be preserved or discarded?

Focusing on the innovations of several mainline Protestant churches in the San Francisco Bay Area, Stephen Ellingson’s The Megachurch and the Mainline provides new understandings of the transformation of spiritual traditions. For Ellingson, these particular congregations typify a new type of Lutheranism—one which combines the evangelical approaches that are embodied in the growing legion of megachurches with American society’s emphasis on pragmatism and consumerism. Here Ellingson provides vivid descriptions of congregations as they sacrifice hymns in favor of rock music and scrap traditional white robes and stoles for Hawaiian shirts, while also making readers aware of the long history of similar attempts to Americanize the Lutheran tradition.

This is an important examination of a religion in flux—one that speaks to the growing popularity of evangelicalism in America.

256 pages | 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Culture Studies

Religion: Christianity, Religion and Society

Sociology: General Sociology


"This book makes an important contribution to the study of innovation in religion from one of the rising stars in the sociology of American religion. It will challenge both scholars and church leaders who think megachurches are the answer to the problems faced by mainline denominations and those who think they are the problem."

William McKinney, president and professor of American Religion, Pacific School of Religion

“Ellingson provides a fascinating portrayal of how mainline churches are working to renegotiate their traditions to solve perceived organizational problems and speak relevantly to contemporary Americans. The Megachurch and the Mainline insightfully uses ethnography and sociological theory to understand big changes in community, identity, leadership, strategy, and the influence of evangelicalism within American mainline Protestantism struggling in a post-traditional culture.”

Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame

“Faith in flux, tradition transformed, and religious restructuring come into brilliant congregational focus in this constructivist study of the Lutheran spirit reframed and hybridized in the flesh of evangelical megachurches or liberal seeker-churches. In showing how and why nine congregations went different ways to consensus, conflict, or compromise in trying to remake themselves in practice, Ellingson reveals the larger moral drama of multivocal cultural traditions enacted in shifting social bodies to inspire the soul of American religion, inflect its institutional arc, and contest its life to come.”

Steven M. Tipton, Emory University

"[The author] offers a very good model to understand congregational change in the United States. . . . An important contribution to the sociology of religion generally and congregational studies specifically."

Michael Wilkinson | Relgious Studies Review

"Ellingson’s research develops into an amazing case study that challenges traditional sociology of religion theories, adding a very well developed critique of religion in the United States. . . . The book is well written, and it sheds light on the transformations underway within the religious environment in the United States."

Christopher Helland | Canadian Journal of Sociology

"A pathbreaking study of the interaction and clashes between Lutheran tradition and the innovations embodied in the evangelical megachurches and different kinds of spirituality."

Richard Cimino | Lutheran Quarterly

"For readers interested in a detailed analysis of shifts in contemporary Protestanism, Ellingson provides a variety of thoughtful points illuminating trends in mainline denominations."

Stephen P. Shoemaker | Sociology of Religion

"I was impressed enough with this book to have adopted it for an upcoming graduate seminar in the sociology of religion. I am confident that it will stimulate vigorous discussion in graduate and undergraduate sociology of religion courses. The volume also provides many great examples of how theories of social change can be evaluated and even reconstructed through grounded, carefully conducted research."

John P. Barkowsky | American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

Chapter 1          The Restructuring of American Religious Traditions
Chapter 2          The Trouble with Tradition
Chapter 3          Constructing the Catalysts of Change
Chapter 4          Reframing the Tradition
Chapter 5          In the Image of Evangelicalism
Chapter 6          Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus
Chapter 7          Tradition and Change in the American Religious Landscape
Appendix: A Note on Data and Methods


Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: SSSR Distinguished Book Award

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