1/6/07

Are American Protestants really feeling "Mainlne" again?

Since the release of Diana Butler Bass's recent book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, there has been a lot of talk about the historic "Mainline" Protestant Churches making a comeback and "feeling Mainline again," as for example in this USA TODAY article. Bass argues that churches that offer a more moderate or even liberal "Christianity" will be a welcome alternative to conservative and fundamentalist churches in the future. There is some truth there, but I suspect she and I would disagree profoundly on what it should/could look like.

Bass recieved a grant to find 50 Mainline Churches that were vital and well-rounded, and on the basis of what she saw at these churches has argued that the doom-and-gloom forecasts for the Mainline denominations ought to be challenged.

I think this sort of "always look on the sunny side" analysis of mainline Churches (based on a sort of anecdotal "this particular church over here is doing just fine" analysis) is actually part of our problem. I realize that many of our churches are doing fine (so far, every Methodist Church I have been active with has been a growing congregation, and I rejoice in the good things that the Spirit of God is working in them), but most are not. In my United Methodist Polity class at SMU/Perkins, one of the books we read argued that the language of "decline" was actually a power play and that it was not helpful for diagnosing our problems. I suppose this is precisely the sort of reasoning we ought to expect from the folks who have been a part of the establishment for the last few decades (who write many of the books we read in seminary "Polity" classes). After all, if there really WAS a crisis, their jobs, their legacies, and (worst of all) their way of "doing church" would be in danger.

But the simple fact of the matter is that while the US population around us has swelled, we in The United Methodist Church have lost over 2 million US members in the last 40-ish years. Other Mainline denominations have (proportionately) fared even worse. Covering our eyes and ears and pretending there is no problem, as some of our leaders would have us do, is called "denial." It is the sign of a delusional leadership that is unwilling to actually change and address problems. To simply deny that there is a problem is like a deathly ill man pretending he has no sickness and therefore refusing treatment - it is insane and can only tend in one direction.

There are a number of reasons for the decline; some are demographic and are not really the fault of our churches. Some have to do with leadership, some with theology. But our number one problem is: fear (which is related to leadership and theology, I suspect). Gone is the confidence of the martyrs, the Church Fathers, the Reformers, or the Revival leaders. We are afraid. We are afraid of losing what we have. We are afraid of dying, so we don't take risks. We don't plant new churches, or sacrificially support those that are planted. We organize our ministries to meet the needs of members, but too often neglect the spiritual needs of those outside our walls. As long as we are afraid of dying, we won't live. Fear is basically the opposite of faith, hope, and love. If we really trusted God (and perhaps if more of us had theology and spiritual experiences that deeply inspired us to do so) then we could walk without fear, knowing that our churches are in his hands.

There are a number of "mainline" Protestant Churches in America. The most prominent are the "seven sisters": Episcopal Church, USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (as opposed to the more conservative Lutheran Church: Missouri Synod), Presbyterian Church in the USA (as opposed to the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America), United Church of Christ, The United Methodist Church (by far, the largest), The Disciples of Christ ("Christian Church"), and the American Baptist Churches in the USA, (as opposed to the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention). All of these churches are in decline by any measurable standard (The United Methodist Church - an international body - is actually growing overall, but declining in the USA). And if the denial continues, they will continue to be so.

I have my own (not really well-informed) ad hoc guesses and predictions about what will happen for each one of them. Any guesses anyone?

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2 Comments:

Blogger John said...

The infection will kill the body until it is cured...or amputated.

10:25 PM, January 08, 2007  
Blogger Stephen said...

"There are a number of reasons for the decline; some are demographic and are not really the fault of our churches. Some have to do with leadership, some with theology. But our number one problem is: fear (which is related to leadership and theology, I suspect). Gone is the confidence of the martyrs, the Church Fathers, the Reformers, or the Revival leaders. We are afraid. We are afraid of losing what we have. We are afraid of dying, so we don't take risks. We don't plant new churches, or sacrificially support those that are planted. We organize our ministries to meet the needs of members, but too often neglect the spiritual needs of those outside our walls. As long as we are afraid of dying, we won't live. Fear is basically the opposite of faith, hope, and love. If we really trusted God (and perhaps if more of us had theology and spiritual experiences that deeply inspired us to do so) then we could walk without fear, knowing that our churches are in his hands."

Amen, Brother Daniel, but alas with me you are probably preaching to the choir. I have tried to talk to higher ups about church plants, etc... only to be met with "We will see, it takes a long process and much training and discernment to start a new church."

Is that not fear talking? We are worried about what will happen if it fails not thinking about what will happen if it succeeds!

Alas, we are more concerned with maintaining sometimes up to 4 churches in shrinking rural communities rather than planting new churches in thriving cities.

*Sigh*

Pax,
Stephen

(can you tell you touched a nerve with this one?)

4:55 PM, January 10, 2007  

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