A Case for Congregations in Individual Development and the Culture Wars: Old First E-pistle 08.23.12.

A Case for Congregations in Individual Development and the Culture Wars: Old First E-pistle 08.23.12.

David Hollinger, professor of American intellectual history at UC/Berkeley, believes mainline Protestants were more successful in the second half of the last century than we are given credit for. More effective than we think of ourselves.

Hollinger contends mainline churches effectively translated their theology into social change. They persuaded millions of their rank and file members to make important and difficult cultural shifts — towards broader, more inclusive, humbler understandings of their privileged positions within an increasingly diverse world. Among those changed attitudes, Hollinger includes:

~ replacing the Christian definition of racism as an individual’s problem with an understanding of it as a social sin and a systemic evil;
~ advocating that racial discrimination could not be overturned without government intervention;
~ supporting expanded opportunities and options for women in society;
~ accepting a positive attitude towards the role of sex beyond procreation;
~ developing empathic concern for “others,” racial, ethnic and later sexual minorities in the U.S. as well as people in other countries, that extended to them a right ommitment to self-determination;
~ paving the way for a pluralist, egalitarian vision of the U.S. society (replacing the melting pot with “multi-culti”);
~ renouncing claims that the U.S. is or should be “a Christian nation.”

These have become the dominant characteristics of U.S. public life as it is emerging today. (Could the strident, loud, conservative movement in our day be mostly a reaction to losing battles in the cultural war?) Why then are mainline churches thought of us unsucceful? Why do we see our ministries as failing?

Mainline denominations themselves and society at large take measure of the church using the size of their membership rolls, rather than the effects of their influence. The former is an easier rough measure, and foreshadows future influence and resources (or powerlessness).

And mainline numbers fell through the floor. Since 1950, mainline churches have experienced a membership drop of over 50%. Worship attendance numbers often suggest an even more dramatic fall-off. Financial resources dry up as people disappear.

During that same sixty years, evangelical churches have grown appreciably. They seem to have picked up disaffected mainliners. They now count roughly twice as large a membership as mainline pews. One could also say they have “stolen the microphone:” they are now often recognized as the voice and face, even the future of Protestantism in the U.S.

Hollinger marvels: mainline leaders, so effective at creating broad cultural change, often left their small congregations and local folks feeling dismissed and unimportant. He also points out, mainline churches failed to make a case for the continued relevance and necessity of their faith communities in the advancement — or living out — of the values they championed.

This last point is what interests me most.

I hope to be an anti-racist, anti-colonialist, feminist, multi-cultural, ecumenical progressive. Actually, in my head, I got a lot of the arguments down pat. It is how I see the world and my role in it.

But living out my way of thinking or living up to my ideals isn’t always so easy. The hold that older ways of looking can have on me is surprising. They grab me from behind. Antiquated attitudes mess with me. “My forefather’s” bad habits all of a sudden are what I’m doing. There are ghosts within me. Maybe this is what mainline Protestantism means by social sin and systemic evil?

The local church is my antidote — a community where I can practice who God wants me to become. Where I am challenged, supported, loved, forgiven and held accountable. Where my growing edges are reinforced. When I look at my personal development over the thirty years of my adulthood, I think much of it is attributable to belonging to and participating in local congregations. When I do better, it’s because I’m active in a local church. Could this experience be part of the case we’ve failed to make?

Mainline churches bequeathed our society a great vision. Admirable, compelling commitments and ideals. But they also offers a necessary, on-going, incarnational subculture — safe space to stretch and experiment, to grow as surely as we fail. A local community where we are cared for so we can get up and try again.

Hollinger, a non-Christian, secular academic, wishes the mainline could offer a public critique of the evangelical’s obscurantism, a la Fosdick’s sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” A recent example of which is Paul Ryan’s assertion that “legitimate rape” rarely causing pregnancy. Or the press releases of the American Family Association are practically a playbook in obscurantist “public information.”

Hollinger points out the whole society would benefit if the mainline could share publicly its interpretations of the meaning of the Bible (the message of the whole biblical witness as opposed to the verses here and there Evangelicals hang their thinking and policy positions on). Without a louder, effective rebuttal on from the progressive side of the aisle, there is a “discursive vacuum” in American cultural life. And the media will continue to represent “family values folks” as the only voice of American religion.

I too wish we could be “louder and prouder” of our faith. We have something valuable — and true — to offer. But until we figure out how to speak to people convincingly… before our congregations begin to flourish and grow, we probably won’t find our voice, or the courage and strength to take conservative Christians on.

When I was on NYConference staff, the church revitalization program I developed, Casting Our Nets on the Other Side, had a tagline that spoke about why building up local churches is important:

For the difference made in every life touched;
For the vitality of our local congregations;
For the capacity of THE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST to practice and preach progressive Good News.

See you in church,

Michael