UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A road trip across the U.S. to gather information for a book on religious faith steered two Penn State researchers through a spiritual landscape that was as diverse and vibrant as America’s scenery.
"It started out as a project to take pictures of churches, but we soon decided to tell the stories of the places and the people we saw," said Roger Finke, professor of sociology and religious studies.
Finke joined Christopher Scheitle, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Penn State at the time of the trip and now an assistant professor of sociology at College of Saint Benedict-Saint John’s University, on a car trip across the country in 2008. They visited churches, Buddhist and Mormon temples, cathedrals, synagogues and mosques, and talked with the people who worship there.
The researchers, who documented their journey in "Places of Faith, a Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape" (2012, Oxford University Press), experienced a few surprises during the trip that added a fresh perspective to their research.
During a visit to Houston, Finke and Scheitle toured the Lakewood Church, one of the nation’s largest mega-churches, led by pastor, author and television personality Joel Osteen. Under Osteen’s guidance, weekly attendance grew from 4,000 to 40,000 worshippers at the church, a former basketball stadium for the Houston Rockets.
Finke said that the attendance did not surprise him, but he was impressed with the number of volunteers. The church employs about 350 workers, but relies on more than 5,000 volunteers to help with services each week.
"What I really wasn’t expecting was how many volunteers help out with the services week in and week out," Finke said. "I was also impressed with how the church handles those crowds, which, in some ways, reminded me of Disney World, which is very smart in how they control lines and crowds."
According to Finke, the researchers outlined a rough itinerary for the trip and specifically selected several spots for their religious or spiritual significance. They visited most of those spots during a five-week excursion in a rented Dodge Charger.