(Last week’s E-pistle began a conversation that I continue in this E-pistle. It referenced two recent articles: Ross Douthat’s “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved” in the New York Times & Jay Akasie’s “What Ails Episcopalians?” in the Wall Street Journal.)
…The one way the conservative Christianity consistently protests modern, North American culture is in its rejection of the trend towards greater choice and self-determination (with less imposed cultural norms) around issues related to sexuality. I’m thinking of homosexuality, abortion, birth control, sex outside of marriage, gender roles, divorce, definitions of family….
On other issues, the conservative churches provide a varying prophetic witness: some advocate for the amelioration of poverty, work for peace, take up environmental concerns, advocate for criminal justice and immigration reform, and preach for greater social and ethnic equality. Others stay away from such topics. But overall their involvement in these areas is markedly less than their progressive Christian counterparts… whose actual work on these issues is also less than it was in earlier decades. The progressive churches struggle with their politics too: they talk the talk more often than they actually turn people out to walk the walk.
Yes, the progressive churches are still more political, and in ways that critique how our world actually plays out. With one great exception: for the most part, progressive Christians do not take exception to the movement in our society towards a liberalization in sexual issues. In fact, some churches actually advocate for the changes.
The parting of the waters between the conservative and the progressive churches currently seems to run right along their different stances on sex.
But both conservative and progressive churches, social scientists now believe, are having difficulties attracting and holding constituencies. The Pew Research Center is reporting that 19% of folks in the U.S., the highest percentage ever, identify themselves as “nones,” people who claim no belief.
The progressive churches are further along in this trend of declining membership, but the numbers now point in the same direction for the conservative churches. Why increasingly doesn’t a theological worldview or an ecclesial praxis work for people? It’s a particularly needling question when compared to North American Jewish communities (of all stripes) that have seen in the last couple of decades a marked renewal and repopulation.
This trend first appeared in the progressive churches in the 60’s when they became embroiled in the social issues around the civil rights movement and the protest to end the Vietnam War. Often, it was denominational bureaucracies and pastoral leadership who took these positions ahead of rank and file members in the pews. And ahead of popular opinion on issues of racial equality and the end of the war. While one can make a case that the success of such movements was due in part from the institutional support of mainline churches, they also paid a price for their witness.
Many older members, disagreeing with their church and disliking their church life becoming politicized, left — never to come back. And they were not replaced by younger people. This is the where people like Kelley, Douthat and Akasie come up with their theory about politics in progressive churches being so unappealing to the public.
But as is often the case, people use “disagreement in the church” as their excuse for leaving, for slamming the door, though they are already in spirit or commitment outside. I suspect that was the case with the political activism of the 60’s and 70’s. It became the occasion for the exodus, but was not the most basic cause. Something was changing in the way North Americans see, experience and respond to the world, and those changes were making a church Weltanschauung less and less workable.
Since then, in response, those same “mainline” churches have become less activist, and the membership decline has continued, even increased. And their conservative cousins — some of whom determinately insist they are focused on the spiritual issues or personal piety and morality — are now seeing a similar decline (especially if one adjusts one’s comparison vis a vis birth rates and immigration numbers).
So, what is disabling church from speaking meaningfully to people? No one knows exactly. Some congregations are growing (like Old First!), but overall, the churches — and their denominations — are shrinking. So much so that pundits opine about the eclipse of Christianity in North America. In many ways, that’s almost happened in much of Northern Europe. The historic buildings are still there, but increasingly, they are used for other purposes, because there are no congregations needing to worship and serve in them.
Why do people doubt organized religion can add to their lives? What changed so that churches have become so less effective? Those are the real questions.
Broad brush strokes — whether a congregation is politically-involved or “spiritually isolationist,” whether values-traditional or progressive, whether its focus is on the individual or the larger society — do not provide answers. Likewise, Douthat and Akasie’s black and white evaluations of churches as “accomodationist” or “culturally-critical” are as misleading as they are inadequate.
Sometimes we as church folk respond to the decline in interest and participation in our communities by pointing our fingers and complaining:
“people just don’t know how important faith is,” or
“children’s sports leagues schedule Sunday morning practices.”
But blaming others instead of asking what we have done wrong is neither a very Christian nor attractive habit! And it’s substituting results for an explanation. What I mean is: shouldn’t we be willing to admit that sometimes church hasn’t been very interesting? Or relevant. That church must not have been adding enough to people’s lives, or they would not have been able to leave it behind, do without it. Other activities are scheduled for Sunday mornings only because people are free, i.e. they are no longer in church.
I’m not sure why it has become so much harder for North Americans to imagine, but less adopt an Christian worldview.
But if we believe the church still has something to offer… if we believe it can be an important voice in people’s lives and how our world turns, then there’s no one but us to get working on making the church more effective.
How can we make what church offers more engaging to people who don’t yet see what difference it can make in their lives?
Can we make faith relevant and real?
Could church be energizing, even exciting, rather than a drag, or a commitment without a lot of return?
Can we articulate our beliefs and practices in ways people outside religious belief might notice… understand… feel served by… see the benefits of… respond to?
Those are the church’s challenges in these days. That’s part of what being a Christian today is all about.
See you in church,
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