This Matters.

church-for-saleAs Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One[a] has no place to lay his head.”

59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

-Luke 9:57-62 (Common English Bible)


Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article on Patheos wondering why Liberal Protestantism is dying.  The writer, Connor Wood, is not the usual writer that tends to look at the downfall of Mainline Protestantism as the fault of social justice or a more friendly approach to gays.  He actually sees a need for this species of Christianity and would like to see it preserved.

Wood wonders why Liberal Protestantism seems like its going down the tubes while conservative and evangelical Protestantism are at least holding its own or thriving.  He thinks he has zeroed in on the answer; Liberal Protestantism doesn’t do as a good a job of forming community as its more conservative brethren.

Before I go any farther, I have to say there is a lot of truth to this.  While there is a lot of talk against individualism in liberal churches (and castigating conservative churches for being individualistic), the talk is more focused on the role of government in society, not the spiritual community.  People are allowed to believe mostly what they want.  Wood explains:

Well, the first thing we have to realize is that conservative churches are almost always stricter than their liberal counterparts. They demand more investment, require their members to believe in more rigorous, exclusionary creeds, and don’t look kindly on skipping church four Sundays in a row to sleep in.

In the early 1990s, a political economist named Laurence Iannaccone claimed that seemingly arbitrary demands and restrictions, like going without electricity (the Amish) or abstaining from caffeine (Mormons), can actually make a group stronger. He was trying to explain religious affiliation from a rational-choice perspective: in a marketplace of religious options, why would some people choose religions that make serious demands on their members, when more easygoing, low-investment churches were – literally – right around the corner? Weren’t the warmer and fuzzier churches destined to win out in fair, free-market competition?

According to Iannaccone, no. He claimed that churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.

And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements.

 I thought that was an interesting look at modern religion and I tended to agree with it.  I saw this article on Facebook and decided to share it with no comment.  It was interesting what the response was.  I think the respondents were focused on Woods use of the word strict, because most of them saw his prescription in negative terms.  I tend to think when liberal Protestants like myself see the word strict along with any mention of conservative or evangelical churches, we tend to think of a religion centered in works with no mention of grace.  The implicit thought here is that our churches are filled with grace and are not so ruled-centered.
Coming from an evangelical background, you can see in some place an emphasis on following rules over grace.  But I think my friends were not really looking deeply at what Wood was talking about here.  He is not saying that liberal churches should give up what makes them liberal to be like conservative churches.  What he is saying is that liberal churches have to be able to demand something from their members.  There is an old fancy word for this: discipleship.  Liberal churches tend not see their faith extending past the doors of the church or beyond the voting booth.  Conservative churches tend to see that all life is under God’s rule and we have to live up to those demands.  Does that mean there is no grace?  No.  I think conservative churches can be places of grace, of that unearned love from God.  Liberal churches tend to say they are based on grace, but I wonder if a grace that doesn’t ask or compel us to be better is nothing more than cheap grace.
Liberal churches tend to fear any change, thinking any change will be to make them a carbon copy of conservative churches.  I don’t think that has to be the case and it shouldn’t be.  We have to create our own unique way of discipleship, not just copy what has been done.

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