Dissertation Abstracts

Religious Renewal and Transformation: A Case Study of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the 21st Century (Working title)

Author: Freudenberg, Maren B., freudenberg@gsnas.fu-berlin.de
Department: Department of Sociology, John F. Kennedy Institute
University: Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. H. Wenzel
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: religion , USA , social change , structure/agency
Areas of Research: Religion , Social Transformations and Sociology of Development , Comparative Sociology


In the wake of dramatic membership loss, mainline Protestant clergy and lay leaders are struggling to engage their membership base and to reconnect with wider society by adapting the church to the changing religious and cultural landscape of the US. The main challenge in this endeavor is to strike the right balance between the demands of a culture characterized by individualism, consumerism, and entertainment, and the mainline Protestant family with its emphasis on heritage, tradition, and community.

This dissertation investigates how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a mainline Protestant denomination known for its liturgical traditionalism, its intellectual approach to faith, and its hierarchical church structure, is reacting to changing societal expectations of what religion should offer in the 21st century: namely, choice, flexibility, and an ever increasing focus on the individual’s relationship with God. How are its leaders developing the church to accommodate the fundamental shifts in American culture and society? What strategies are being used to address the challenges associated with the age of high modernity?

The empirical data collected at this point reveals that the ELCA is not only aware that it needs to change and adapt to contemporary culture. The data also suggests that various currents and voices within the ELCA are actively pursuing strategies of renewal and transformation, which include redeveloping leadership and religious education, encouraging ecumenical and extra-institutional outreach and networking, cultivating contextual faith practices, generating spiritual growth, and trying to foster a culture of evangelism.

On a theoretical level, I investigate how social change occurs by examining the interplay of structures and agency, including collective agency and networks. The focus on clergy and lay leaders at different levels of the ELCA’s organizational hierarchy provides unique insights into how both religious practices and the denomination’s structure are currently developing and changing. The questions that guide my analysis include whether worship practices in the ELCA are becoming more individual-centered and experiential, and what role the liturgy plays in this process; and whether the institutional hierarchy is shifting to grant more autonomy to the congregational level.

In this dissertation, I hope to uncover how the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States is developing in light of broader cultural and religious tendencies that run counter to its historical emphasis on hierarchy, tradition, and intellectualism. Ultimately, this research will shed light on how religion, as a conservative social force, may be changing.

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