Panic at the Narthex

panicJust a bit of a warning here: I’m about to go all “get off my lawn” in this post.  I guess at 43 I do earn the right to be the cranky middle aged guy.

What’s getting stuck in my craw lately is the perceived lack of enthusiasm for the continuance of the mainline/progressive/liberal church.  Now,if you have read this blog, I’m basically ranting about what’s wrong within my theological home.  It’s not that it’s apostate and I want to leave to something more pure, it’s more that I want it to live up to its potential. I’m too loyal to leave, but too ornery to not be quiet about it.

Right now, the mainline church isn’t living up to its potential.  It’s not even trying.  It’s coasting on it’s past glories and learning to manage it’s decline, to slowly wind down its operations, so that when death happens it will be relatively painless.

Working with two mainline denominations, I have the opportunity to see how the once vital Mainline Protestant church works from the inside and it isn’t pretty.  What it comes down to is that we aren’t trying to seek new ways of doing things in a changed age.  Instead, we muddle through and try to keep from going into freefall.  Our pastors and other leaders have become hospice chaplains, trying to make sure people are comfortable as we slowly collaspe and die.

I get frustrated that we so easily allow churches to close.  Mainline churches sure know how to end a ministry with honor.  We are so good at it because we do it so damn much.  Presbyterian pastor John Vest shared a report on the lastest statistics on the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2012 and the results were horrendous.  Here is the overview:

  • Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.

  • This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.

  • 86 churches were dissolved.

  • 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.

  • While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.

As Vest notes, this is not sustainable.  If things go at their present rate then the Presbyterian Church (USA) would cease to exist in 2030, when his son turns 18.

Even in my own denomination there are challenges.  The oft tale is that the Disciples have planted over 800 churches since 2001, but little is known how many of the 800 still exist and how many are really involved in the life of the greater church.  (My own new church and two others that were started a decade ago, no longer exist).  Meanwhile, it seems that we Disciples continue to close churches and lose members.

Yes, as some note, evangelical churches are starting to decline as well.  But focusing on their recent and relatively slower decline is like worrying about the sliver in your friend’s hand while you have a gaping wound that’s gushing blood.

Now, I don’t think the Presbyterian Church is going away by 2030.  But I do think that it will be even smaller than what it is now.  I do think that these stats are cause for concern because it means that we are still heading in the wrong direction.

But the problem is the response to John’s post.  It’s a response that I’ve seen before; one that tries to look at the bright side and goes after the naysayers.  Reading some of the comments, I can see some of the usual responses.  We talk about all those churches doing cool things.  Jesus didn’t say anything about denominations so why care if the Presbyterian Church survives or not?  Maybe something has to die before something is born.  _____Church is just going through the normal life cycle.  (Not all of these appeared in the comments, but I’ve heard them before.)

The whole point is that things aren’t really so bad.  It’s basically whistling past the graveyard.

Sometimes I wish someone would say it’s okay to panic.  It’s okay to be scared, because things are desparate.  Sometimes a little panic is okay, because it means that you actually give a damn about all of this.

Back in 2010, Walter Russell Mead wrote a series of posts on the decline of the mainline church, especially his own Episcopal Church.  In one of his posts, he talks about the need for mainline churches to find ways to be sustainable and to answer a particular question:

The mainline churches do not seem to have thought through some of the basic conditions that allow religious organizations to thrive.  Religion will not long prosper as a luxury good; it is not primarily a way that comfortable people who are basically happy with their lives can make their lives even richer and more rewarding.  A sustainable religion must convince people that it is necessary to life, health and spiritual coherence.  A church cannot be one club among many or one leisure activity among many; it must present itself as a bedrock necessity.  Not all of its members will take the church at this estimate, but unless a critical mass of its members and leaders feel this way, a denomination (or a congregation) will be entirely dependent on outside cultural and economic forces for its health and even in the long run its survival.  A successful church is not one whose pastors and other leaders think a life in church is one calling among many; a critical mass must deeply believe that it this vocation is so critical that they would do it, if need be, for nothing — that they would do it if actively persecuted and flogged from town to town.

A ‘comfortable’ church can survive comfortably enough if the general social environment supports church membership and church pledging.  In Eisenhower’s America, it was the ‘done thing’ to belong to church, and people went, pledged and participated.  Moreover, the generation of people born around 1920 lived through the Great Depression, World War Two and the terrifying opening years of the Cold War before they turned thirty around 1950; these were serious people by and large who brought some strong convictions into the church.  They were a generation who sought order and were willing to pay a price to build orderly institutions. But times changed, and the confident, affluent mainline of the 1950s has never managed to adapt.

The great question for fundamentalist and evangelical religion is the relationship of revelation to modern science.  The great question for modernist and mainline religion is the ‘so what’ question.  If members are not sinners being saved from the flames of Hell, if Christianity is not the one path of salvation offered by a merciful God to a perishing world, if a relationship with God is not the only means to surmount the challenges of each day much less to meet the great tests of life — why go to church?  Why pledge?  Why have the kids go to Sunday school rather than soccer practice?

If all religions are more or less true (and, presumably, therefore, all more or less false), why pay particular attention to any one of them?  If the churches develop their ethical standards (sex before marriage, divorce, homosexuality, racial justice, political ideas) from secular society and the general American consensus, why go to church for anything except weddings, funerals and Christmas carols?  What do you learn in church that you can learn nowhere else?  What kind of relationships do you form in church that you can form nowhere else?

Why is churchgoing so important to you that you will not only go there no matter what — but that you will do everything in your power to encourage your friends and neighbors to join you?  Why is church the daily bread you must have, not a lovely garnish on an already full plate?

A sustainable religion must have answers to these questions.  Otherwise it will slowly fade away.

I think that is part of the reason we need to panic: we need to figure out if our church members, if those of us who call ourselves pastors, see church, see faith as something bedrock to life itself.  Does our faith matter at all?  As Mead notes, if we take our cues from secular society for social mores, then why go to church?  Why plant churches?  Why do we need Jesus? Do we need Jesus?

If something new is being born, what is it?  If something has to die, what is it?  If denominations don’t matter, why stay in one?  What does our particular faith mean in an interfaith world?

None of this means that conservatives or evangelicals have the answers (though there might be a few things we can learn from them).  What it means is that we are willing to be a bit anxious and less comfortable.  It means that we think faith communities matter and that they are vital to people’s lives.  We haven’t wanted to ask those questions.  Maybe because we still think of ourselves as living in 1950s Eisenhower America. Or maybe we just don’t want to look inward; afraid of what we will find.

My hope is that mainline/progressive Christianity will be brave and ask those questions.  I want us to think about what it means to be a Christian now, at this moment.  I want us to have a passion for our faith, one that’s powerful enough to be excited about planting new churches and seeking ways to revive dying ones.  I want us to learn that being a Christian matters.

Our answers won’t be the same as our evangelical sisters and brothers.  But we need those answers.  Even more importantly, we need those questions.

So my message to Rev. Vest is this: panic a little.  Ask questions.  Keep seeking answers.  We in the mainline need more people like you who are willing to make us uncomfortable.  Because that’s the only way we will carry this tradition into the future.



6 thoughts on “Panic at the Narthex

Add yours

  1. Thanks for this Dennis, things are similar in the historic denominations in the UK and I also get frustrated when people tell me things would be fine if only we cheered up

  2. I wonder if we have been so contextualised that we are now just offering another ‘brand’ to buy instead of being the radical counter-cultural revolutionaries that Jesus and his disciples were?

  3. I left the Catholic Church to join the Disciples, and I see things very differently. From 1880 to 1960, mainline Protestantism thrived by uncritically embracing and passing on the ideals of the American upper and middle classes. The mainline clergy who stopped doing that were rapidly abandoned, and a group of enterprising fundamentalists were willing to rebrand themselves as “evangelicals” and take over. But I submit that the mainline churches are withering because they were more dependent on American culture than Jesus, and once they broke from American culture, they didn’t have a leg to stand on. And to be honest, churches (local and national) that are disconnected from Jesus neither can nor should survive. Mainline Protestants are hurting, but we’re feeling the pain of the refiner’s fire.

  4. I loved this post. Thanks so much for sharing Dennis. I go to Peace Prez. in St. Louis Park and our congregation size has noticeably gotten smaller over the past five years. We lack youth and energy. Familia de Fe is moving in with us so we hope this will bring some life back. However our pastor is leaving and now our congregation is kind of a mess and remains very devided on issues. We are unclear where were headed. I absolutely love reading this blog! Thanks. It gives me hope that I’m not the only hopefull Presbyterian out there.

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