Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Irrelevancy of Mainline Christianity: A Response

Drew Tatusko (with apologies for the original misspelling) has a post on his blog entitled: The Irrelevancy of Mainline Christianity. I find myself agreeing with the title but not with the content of his post. It is no secret that mainline Christianity has been in a decades-long state of decline. In my own small denomination, the Church of the Brethren, we have lost nearly 36,000 members in the last two decades, going from 161,824 members in 1,044 congregations in 1986 to 125,964 members in 1006 congregations in 2007. At our denomination headquarters we are going through another restructuring, a sure sign of a lack of both funds and purpose. What is happening to us is happening to other mainline churches. Mainline denominations are still floundering and declining.

Drew notes that conservative churches have a much better rate of retention than mainline churches. In part this is because they tend to have more babies. In part, and I think this is the heart of his post, it is because they have a clearer sense of what their message and purpose is: to proclaim "Christ crucified."

I will return to this latter point in a moment. But first I want to point out that while it may be true that conservative churches have a better rate of retention, it is also true that both conservative and liberal churches are losing ground in America, particularly among young people. The Barna Group has been tracking this trend for some time:
Simply put, each new generation has a larger share of people who are not Christians (that is, atheists, agnostics, people associated with another faith, or those who have essentially no faith orientation)... Among adults over the age of 40, only about one-quarter qualify as outsiders, while among the 16 to 29 segment, two-fifths are outsiders. This represents a significant migration away from the dominant role that Christianity has had in America.
Moreover, the perception these young people have of conservative Christianity is particularly negative. It remains to be seen whether a new generation of evangelical leaders can soften that perception.

It is certainly true that beginning in the 1950's there was a significant migration of Christians out of the mainline churches into more conservative churches. But that migration appears to be over. At the same time there was, and is, a growing migration of people out of churches altogether. One fourth of Americans are not attached to any faith community. Christianity is no longer America's default faith. Among those who consider themselves to be Christian, conservative Christianity is doing better than liberal Christianity. But both are facing significant challenges in an increasingly secular and skeptical culture.

Now I want to get back to Drew's point about clarity of message. Drew says that liberal churches have tended to focus their attention on providing social programs that are increasingly better provided by other religious or secular organizations. And when this is all they have to offer they are in trouble:
When the emotional and social functions of the church are all that remain of the church in its function, it is almost assuredly the kiss of death. The reward for immediate concerns through other social institutions is simply quicker, more efficient, and the expertise of the psychological, social and medical that was once the purvue of the church, is not at the discretion of specialized professionals to take care of the mind, the politics, and the body of those who are sick.
I mostly agree. If all the liberal church has to offer is a spiritualized version of therapy, it doesn't stand a chance. The same goes for spiritual entertainment. For those who are coming from a more evangelical perspective the Willow Creek mega-church-like experience does it better. For those who are coming from a more secular or liberal perspective there are spiritual gurus, psychologists, and football games.

Where I disagree with this point is that in an America where we are increasingly "bowling alone," the local church often provides the only real "community" that many Americans know. There are many liberal Christians I know who come to church looking first and foremost for community. In fact, in my congregation there are a number of non-Christians who are a part of our church for this reason. Someone once made a comment to me that our church was nothing more than a social club. They were wrong about that. But my first response to that statement is "so what." For some people this is the only social club they have and it is important to them. And there is still no social club in America quite like the local church with its ability to bring people together from a variety of social and economic backgrounds and its mission to get them to play nice together.

As to Drew's statement about the importance of preaching Christ crucified, here is what he says:

Liberal Christianity loses its soul when it ceases to stake its claim on the centrality of Christ crucified. Any church that wants to retain members has to place demands on them as well. These do not have to be theologically or biblically conservative demands, but even as Christ demands that we seek the outcast, seek justice, love mercy, and hate evil, so must the church. If Christ is the most important message in Christianity, that is what must be preached with verve and vigor, and what must always be at the center of what the church has to offer.

Without Christ crucified, the church will cease to exist; it will be as a droplet into the vast sea of secular conscience. With Christ, there is nothing but an irreducible tension that the church will have with the prevailing normative society because Christ demands that those in the church change it. It is not a matter of if people need a savior. It is to claim the conviction that people do need a savior and there is only one social institution that can offer it. This is the one unique calling of the church in a secular world. May the church of Christ live up to its calling and purpose for its existence.

I find this statement both confusing and wrong. It is confusing because I am not really sure what he means by "Christ crucified". Is it all about the demanding life that requires us to "seek the outcast, seek justice, love mercy, and hate evil?" Or is it about the message that we need a savior? The two are not necessarily the same. It is possible to believe the one and not the other.

It is possible to preach Christ crucified and focus on the kind of demanding life, the life of discipleship, the kind of life that got Jesus crucified and that that ought still to have us living in constant tension with our culture. It is also possible to balance that challenging message with the good news that we are unconditionally loved by God and to frame the Christian message first with the good news of God's love for us and then with the invitation and challenge to take up one's cross and follow Jesus.

It's also possible to preach Christ crucified and focus on the magic of the resurrection of Christ and the good news that God loves us and sent his son to save us but if we don't believe that Jesus is our savior and if we don't believe that we need a savior, then we are going to burn in hell. And, by the way, it so happens that we have the only institution that offers this message.

It seems clear to me that the conservative churches have focused on this second interpretation of the definition of Christ crucified. And they have also added a piece regarding the demanding personal moral life that is expected of Christians. It is not so clear to me that they have always maintained much of a tension with the predominant economic and militarist bent of our culture. (And could it be that this also helps to explain their "success?")

What isn't so clear to me is a future where this message retains its ability to attract an increasingly secular and educated population. The world is getting smaller. It is virtually impossible to grow up in America today and not know Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, athiests, etc. They are our neighbors and friends, at least they are in urban America. Fewer and fewer of our children are going to buy the notion that their religion is the exclusive domain on truth and eternal life. Fewer are going to buy the notion that they need a savior. America didn't experience the rush to secularism that western Europe experienced, but it is coming.

My own belief is that liberal Christianity is uniquely positioned for this movement. Drew is right that liberal Christianity needs a clear message, and that message needs to be Christ crucified. But the attraction of that message is going to be the kind of demanding and rewarding life that one experiences when you live in the way that Jesus lived. It requires transformation; it brings a rewarding life; it could conceivably get you killed. You don't need a savior, but if you choose to live this way your life will never be the same.

It is also possible that I will be proven wrong about this movement towards secularism. But even if I am wrong and America remains a bastion of Christian conservatism, there will still be a place for a liberal Christianity that has a distinctive mission and purpose. Our mainline denominations are not there yet. There is still a lot of dying that needs to be done. But there are many thriving liberal congregations who are there.

1 comment:

Drew Tatusko said...


I responded. and the last name is Tatusko.