The Decline of the Mainline and Evangelism?: E-pistle 01.27.11

One of you asked last week, “Do you think that the mainline’s disinclination to evangelize accounts for its numerical decline?”It’s an interesting, important question… and not easy to answer.

I heard somewhere that ever since the Pilgrims stepped off the boat, the percentage of North Americans who are mainline Protestants has been dropping. Considering the Native Americans were neither Christian nor mainline (despite the Puritans‘ forthright and often, in hindsight, painful evangelical efforts), that percentage was never even close to 100%. Successive immigrant waves from other Christian and non-Christian traditions has steadily eroded the mainline’s original North American “market share.”

Likewise, the slippage has been internal too. As early as 1662, our UCC forbearers, the Puritan settlers, enacted the “half-way covenant.” This innovation offered a partial church membership so the second and third generations after the founding parents of North America’s mainline Protestantism could receive communion and baptize their children. The church was already accommodating decreasing religious piety– fewer conversion experiences (the proof at the time of the adequacy of one’s faith)– and an increasing desire for material wealth over spiritual fervor. Puritan preachers hoped the creation of this “associate member” status might shore up the church’s rolls and, thereby, maintain the church’s influence in society and expose those “second class believers” to the teachings, advantages and desire of full participation in the church.

Cultural religious revivals such as the First and the Second Great Awakenings aside, secularization seems almost inherent in the forward march of western civilization– part of its modernization and rationalization. It is perhaps the greatest of all the environmental factors affecting the contemporary church, and a clear example of a factor over which the church has little to no control.

As society shifted from oral tradition to a writing culture that diffused knowledge; as the state supplanted the family and the community as the custodian of education; as science has overtaken religious explanations of human’s ethical and spiritual needs; as what Emile Durkheim has called “the collective conscience” has been attenuated… religion has become increasingly a matter of personal choice and less of an observed social obligation. Attendance at worship decreases; religious institutions lose their authority in social life and governance; and religious beliefs, practices and institutions weaken in social and personal significance and influence.

The challenge of this drift aside, the mainline’s inability to transmit its faith threatens the survival of its faith communities. Even if the march of western culture is counter to religious belief, in our increasingly pluralistic modern world, there a number of subcultures. But they only exist because they offer compelling meaning that can be shared over time within some subset of individuals.

Mainline ambivalence towards evangelism is founded in commitments of which we can be proud. Historically, the church’s sense of the superiority of its faith has often been arrogant and condescending. It has caused harm to those not of its faith, or its particular brand of faith. The critique of evangelism grew from rationalist socio-pragmatic theology tracing back to the rise of 16th and 17th century historical Biblical criticism and 18th and 19th century anti-colonial liberation movements. Christians came to recognize that its devaluation of all other religions, was problematic… sinful because it occasioned practical disregard for or harm to non-Christian people.

With exclusivist Truth-claims (capital “T”) undercut– no longer able to proclaim Jesus is the ONLY way to the God– traditional motivations and strategies for evangelism ceased to be functional. With other people’s stories and faith also having credence, the church found itself lacking the voice with which it felt called to proselytize, with which we had a story to tell the nations.

The mainline, liberal theological tradition, especially as lived out in Western Europe and North America, has accepted an admirable limitation, its understandable and noble fear of being condescending. But it has failed to figure out or re-invent an alternative motivation and methodology for articulating effectively or sharing broadly what its faith offers. Thus, the earnest question put to me!

Personally, I don’t find this challenge insurmountable. Post-modernism tackles and treats this exact problem. It doubts the possibility of objective Truth (again captital “T”). Instead, post-modernism points out that all apparent realities are social constructs. It accepts “realities” as plural and relative. In essence, that leaves us with a panopoly of little truths (lower case “t”) that, while seeming to compete in the old way of looking at things (where there was only one Way), now live alongside together, rubbing shoulders but not bumping heads, and can make for some really interesting neighbors and informative conversations.

For me, this offers “truth” (lower case “t”) to my faith experience without necessarily denying the truth of someone else’s different experience of faith. It keeps me humble about the reach or claim of my own understanding. But it allows, nonetheless, a value and role for my perspective on faith– as one of many voices in a pluralistic, globalized conversation on differences and the limitations of any and all certainty. It also challenges me to listen to other, different experiences. And to be open to how my own faith might be changed.

Ok, we’re all left living more tentatively, but isn’t that really a more honest picture of what life affords anyway?

This is for me all very UCC. Our story never claims to be told in a single voice. At our best, we’re a chorus in many parts. We find blessing in our differences. We begin by acknowledging that each of us has her or his own unique experience, and, therefore, we each have our own peculiar relationship with, understanding of, even way to God. Not so much individuality and uniqueness that we can’t find commonalities or walk together and support one another. But enough that we don’t want to pretend there’s some credal unity or uniformity we cannot claim or attain.

To enable and protect this freedom of conscience, we resist establishing any hierarchy– determining whose faith is better, more authentic. We find greater blessing in listening to the varieties and reflecting on why they are different. We extend this same internal largesse or liberality to our conversation with other Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith. We stand on the importance of appreciating and sharing our differences. Everyone benefits from more than his or her own experience could promise.

I am to tell my story. To share my faith. Not because it can claim any objective Truth. Neither because it is what anyone else must believe. But, nonetheless, what I have to say can help others on their journeys– similar or different to mine.

Finding our voices to talk about what we believe and why is part of our responsibility and calling. Not because we have right answers from on high others must accept lest they perish. But because we’ve been put here with others to play our part in a conversation much larger than us.

A couple of years back, the UCC tried to resurrect and redeem “the E-word.” Yes, “evangelism” is actually considered a dirty word in many corners of the UCC! I think that was a wrong-headed strategy. First of all, our most progressive local churches, statistically the most likely to be the congregations in the UCC that are growing, are also the most likely to reject any call to evangelize. Why? This is my second reason for giving up on the word. Evangelism, as its been practiced, as we inherit it from our tradition, is inextricably tied up with too hurtful a past and with all those exclusivist constructs (that without a Faith like ours, everyone else is condemned, lost, forsaken).

My hope is in developing my and our abilities to talk effectively (articulately? confidently? poetically?) about our experience of faith. Because in so doing, we will serve God, blessing others who, hearing our witness, will be better able to define and discuss the fullness of their experiences, whether they are like, dissimilar or even opposed to ours. And I tend to believe– because I know how much faith and church add to my life– that along the way, other people, more people will find their lives will be made bigger and their faith grow by their becoming part of the conversation we participate in, live and share at Old First.

What do you think?

See you in church,

Michael

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