Sociology ETDs


Kevin LaPoint

Publication Date



This four-year qualitative study examined three culturally-lenient churches with loose membership standards in order to determine the institutional dynamics that inspire participant devotion to liberal styles of religiosity. Research locations included an Episcopal parish, Unitarian Universalist church, and United Church of Christ congregation. Extensive participant observation and thirty-six open-ended, in-depth interviews conducted with senior ministers, lay leaders, and new members revealed how the liberal faith communities primarily attracted cultural and social elites driven by postmodern, existentialist concerns. Churchgoers were committed to their inclusive religious environments because of the mix of social, cultural, and/or mystical relationships available within the groups, and that evoked enjoyable emotional experiences they interpreted as rare, highly-desirable, and sacred' commodities in contemporary American society. The liberal religious consumers demonstrated how the Durkheimian concept of the sacred can be extended and evoked within communities that collectively celebrate contemporary perspectives and inclusive ideals associated with modernity. The researcher also discovered the critical role that 'spiritual but not religious' seekers espousing mystically-oriented, monistic conceptions of Ultimate Reality can play in the growth and vitality of culturally-lenient faith communities. Two of the religious organizations in this study displayed the spiritually-oriented atmospheres and expressive uses of religious traditions, rituals, and practices that have been identified in so-called 'progressive' mainline churches around the nation, and which some social observers have interpreted as demonstrating a supposed 'return to tradition' by these groups. The current research, however, found that the two progressive churches were growing and thriving largely due to the participation of spiritual seekers and innovative ministers who held distinctly unconventional religious views, and who actively engaged in a process of retraditioning their denominational cultures so as to accommodate their perceptions of mysticism. The evolving cultural process of progressive-mysticism that resulted from these dynamics helped build growing liberal-progressive coalitions within the churches between new, mystically-oriented seekers joining the groups and more conventionally-liberal denominationalists, providing renewed enthusiasm for social justice activities, distinctive religious expressions, and overall organizational solidarity.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Burris, Beverly

Second Committee Member

Miller, William R.

Third Committee Member

Williams, Rhys H.


Liberalism--Religion--Episcopal Church--Case studies, Liberalism--Religion--Unitarian churches--Case studies, Liberalism--Religion--United Church of Christ--Case studies, Organizational commitment--Case studies



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