Once upon a time, churches in Europe functioned as resting places for weary travelers on religious pilgrimages across Europe. That these glorious buildings were constructed along travel routes speaks to the huge role they played as social institutions in ancient Europe. Although they are still important to the makeup of society, the role of the church has changed as people have begun to examine the structures of other social institutions that affect organized religion.
Defining Social Institutions
Education Portal likens social institutions to bike parts. Metaphorically, these entities work together to create a fully functioning bike. The role social institutions play in society helps ensure a society's survival by adding to its stability, increasing its structure and minimizing chaos. Religious institutions such as churches count as only one of the social institutions within a society. Others include government, education and family institutions. A shift in one of these institutions can effect change in the others.
The Role of Churches
Within religious institutions, people learn about correct values, the right way to live and how they fit into the universe. The church, the synagogue or the temple also provide comfort to people in times of distress and hope when life presents its inevitable challenges. However, what people have started looking for in churches as social institutions has changed in recent years. According to NPR, the rise of non-denominational churches indicates that people would like a more relaxed approach to religion.
Losing Faith in Religion
Despite the important role that churches have played throughout the history of the United States, a 2012 Gallup poll indicates that Americans have begun to lose faith in religion as an institution, with Catholics having less confidence than the Protestants. According to "Christianity Today," 56 percent of Protestants in that poll had a "great deal" of confidence in their church, whereas only 46 percent of Catholics did. Overall, only 44 percent of Americans had a "great deal" of confidence in organized religion.
A handful of social issues have caused the shift in the perception of the church. For example, religious views on homosexuality and the use of contraceptives tend to negatively affect people's view of the church. These issues divide church members, splitting them between those who perceive life from a more traditionally based view and those who are progressive. However, this doesn't mean that people have stopped feeling attached to religion or even to the idea of God. Rather, they are looking at the church with new eyes and trying to form a new identity based on these new realities.
- Education Portal: Social Institutions: Definition, Examples & Quiz
- Nation Master: Confidence in Social Institutions -- Church by Country
- Christianity Today: Confidence in U.S. Churches Hits All-Time Low
- Public Religion Research Institute: Are Americans Losing Faith in Organized Religion?
- NPR: U.S. Still Religious, but Trust in Institutions Wanes
- The Great Courses: History of European Art
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