Thursday, September 21, 2006

Mainline Denominational Decline Beyond Theological Affiliation

We've talked a lot about how theological affiliation (particularly liberal theology) may affect the overall decline of mainline denominations. But beyond the stated theology of the church, I think that there are two other major factors that have induced the decline of mainline denominations:

2. Failure of churches to change their languages of communication. As much as I suspect that the emerging church movement is a marketing conspiracy of the haircare industry and Starbucks, this movement at least fully realizes that the Gospel is not bound to any one culture. There is no one way of "doing church", but so many local churches are committed to staying in 1950s Americana. This problem encompasses the whole contemporary worship vs. traditional worship struggle, but also means completely thinking outside of the box in order to stay focused on the mission of the church. Wherever God's children are, we go.

Personal example: when I was growing up, my family moved a lot. We usually went to UMC and PCUSA churches. And I've met a lot of people who typically moved between these two denominations. I recently asked my parents why we did this. They said, "Well, they're just alike; the two denominations are interchangeable." I knew what they meant -- both embraced a particular style, form, and social class. But the two shouldn't be alike! Calvinist orthodoxy and Methodist orthodoxy are very different. The flavor of the sermons, teaching, and ecclesiology of the two denominations should be different. But they weren't different in the way of "doing church" -- church as a cultural institution.

3. Which leads me neatly into the third factor leading into mainline decline: the end of the Constantinian era. There is no longer a social obligation to go to church. As much as this has led to mainline decline and what people bemoan the "post-Christian age", I thank God that this social obligation has ended. It was a cultural force which inoculated countless people from a transformative faith.

Again, personal example: For my parents, born in the Deep South in 1940 and 1942 respectively, the idea of not going to church was inconceivable. Growing up, I thought that being a Christian meant showing up on Sundays and dressing neatly. When I first went to church at the age of 25 after nearly a decade of absence, I was absolutely shocked to see men not wearing suits. But although my parents are deeply moral people with a stern and private faith, what I learned was that being a Christian meant "going to church." Any emotional religious expression should be kept private and solitary. But going to church was optional for me, and removed from Constantinian constraints, I stopped going. I don't blame my parents -- by no means. Constantinian social dynamics had turned them into serious Christians and they had no reason to believe that they wouldn't work for me and my brother. The end of Constantinian America caught them completely off-guard, and is still catching many churches off-guard.

The Constantinian era was poison to Christianity, and if the consequence of losing it is mainline decline, so be it. Perhaps, as Bruce Alderman eloquently writes, the loss of numbers isn't all that important. Perhaps. It depends on why we are growing or shrinking. I see far too many elderly United Methodists who know that the Titanic is sinking but are content with leaving the deckchairs in their current arrangement because it won't sink until after they die. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this is the situation in many other mainline denominations.


Anonymous said...


A great post! Clearly the best of the Methodist Blogosphere!

codepoke said...

the emerging church movement is a marketing conspiracy of the haircare industry and Starbucks,

Best line all day. :-D

But they weren't different in the way of "doing church" -- church as a cultural institution.

Bam! Amen.

the end of the Constantinian era

Well put.

Loved this post.

Jonathan said...

Great post, John. You are exactly right! For more extended commentary on the end of the Constantinian era, be sure to see the book entitled You-Know-What, co-authored by You-know-who and You-Know-Who-else. :)

John said...

Heh. Yes, I think that I do know what book you're talking about. It's required reading here at Asbury.

Greg Hazelrig said...

I enjoyed your post and agree wholeheartedly.

Ethan said...

I have long observed that one of the problems with the UMC churches I've known is that those who are elders in age and tend to hold the positions of authority in local churches do not act like elders (small e there) in the faith.

Yet for decades they have commanded respect and have dominated their churches as if they were the latter. They've been the primary people resisting change and not really understanding what the church is all about. Most often they're the folks driving away others for offenses such as not dressing right, being of the wrong race or status, or wanting to try new forms of music.

This is such a widespread phenomenon that you wonder how so many of these "good church people" got that way. My theory is that back in their younger years they never got to know Christ personally because that's not what was being taught. Church as a cultural institution, yes. Real understanding of the gospel, no.

I'd be interested in reading others' thoughts.

John said...

Ethan, I agree. Too many of the power players have a very different ecclesiology than...well, what they should have.

John B said...

I'm with Allen on this one, this deserves a Best of the Methoblogosphere Award.

But I still think it's more fun to blame the liberals.

Ethan said...

I have often thought a fascinating dissertation topic would be what was going on in UMCs (and perhaps other mainline denominations) in the period from the 1930s-1950s that would have produced the kinds of "elders" we have in our churches today.

What was being preached in the pulpits? Was there any emphasis on discipleship or spiritual growth? What mission and outreach practiced?

I think that is where we may find some of the answers. My guesses are that folks weren't expected to do much more than show up on Sundays and watch the pastor do all the work. Possibly because we were still in, although coming rapidly towards the end of Constantine time.

But I could be wrong.....

Anyway, it would make a fascinating dissertation topic (at least for me).

Anonymous said...

I used to work in an industry with similar decline problems - newspapers. Just like mainline churches, we had our own version of the Constantian argument.

The problem is that even if the end of Constantianism explains why churches are shrinking, it doesn't offer any clear prediction about what circumstance will bring about an end to the shrinkage. I think we all hope we will reach a point of equillibrium - kind of a white dwarf star church (hopefully bigger) - but what if it doesn't stop?

I know there are few Zorastrians running around the planet still. Is that Christianity 2106?

Oloryn said...

There's also the problem of some Christians hankering for a return of Constantinism. As much as I support keeping a Christian voice in the political arena, I think there's a danger that we get more concerned about preserving a surrounding culture where we can be safe and comfortable as Christians than we are about furthering God's Kingdom. While we are told to pray for our leaders in a way geared towards us living a quiet and tranquil life (I Tim 2:1-4), and in a democratic society that will lead to us speaking out in the political arena, I get the feeling that there's a potential trap of regarding that state as an entitlement, and end up pursuing it in a way that prioritizes political means over spiritual means. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson's "Blinded By Might" has a lot to say on this, but I'm also reminded of C. S. Lewis's principle of First and Second Things: "every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made". A peaceful and tranquil life is a good thing, most especially because it makes spreading the gospel(which is the greater good) easier(see Paul's line of thought in the passage cited above). But if we make that peaceful and tranquil life an end in itself, and prioritize it above spreading the gospel, we stand likely to lose both that life and the freedom we currently have in spreading the gospel. And if that's true, you have to wonder if this is already happening.

Olive Morgan said...

I add my vote for this to be Best of the Methoblogosphere. Thank you, John.
Ethan is right to say that ‘those who are elders in age and tend to hold the positions of authority in local churches do not act like elders (small e there) in the faith.’ In UK Methodism there is a 6-year rule designed to prevent the same people continuing in leadership but, in practice, what happens is that at the end of the first 6 years the leaders simply do a reshuffle and we end up with the same team in control. As Ethan says they are the ones driving away those who do not conform to their cultural norm – in my case, that I do not live ‘on the Heights’ and I am always wanting to move on to new music (etc.) and Fresh Expressions of church. Many times since coming to this church I have begged God to let me move to another church but always He has said very firmly, ‘Stay in this place. If you do I will bless you and no harm will come to you.’ It has been hard (but there has been much joy).

Again, Ethan, you ‘hit the nail on the head’ when you wrote ‘My theory is that back in their younger years they never got to know Christ personally because that's not what was being taught. Church as a cultural institution, yes. Real understanding of the gospel, no.’ They seem incapable of understanding me when I talk of knowing Christ personally. Half a dozen of us recently attended an ecumenical personal evangelism course called ‘Lost for Words’, including one of these ‘elders’ (who has served the church faithfully all his 85 years). He withdrew at the end saying, ‘All the course has taught me is that my faith is lacking something – but it’s too late now.’ How sad, for I have great respect for him and count him as a friend.
However, certainly where I was living, the preaching was not at fault in the 1939 -1950s, Ethan, for this was when I heard the most dynamic preaching and was called to preach! Perhaps I was lucky that in my late teens my Civil Service office was evacuated to Southport when war broke out and it was there that I encountered the dynamic Southport Holiness Convention that has influenced my life ever since.
It is since the 1950s that preaching seems to have changed and the Mission House changed – no longer sending missionaries overseas, for reasons that seemed quite sensible at the time. When my daughter wanted to teach overseas, the Mission House didn’t want to know and she went freelance into a (foreign) government post. There was no way of keeping her Methodist membership 40 years ago, but she said ‘It’s only a piece of paper! It doesn’t alter what I believe.’

How glad I am that now in the UK Connexion there is a movement of the Spirit, and also here in Reading with the ecumenical mission of Regenerate Reading. The minister at our church is gradually changing the church management and introducing a 5-point ministry all aimed at mission. So I travel in hope and faith.

Ethan said...

Thanks for your comments Olive! It could very well be that it was not the preaching in the 30s-50s, so much as it was the overall climate in the churches.

If I remember my church history correctly, it had been several decades at least since the last revival (Wales, etc. was one of the last, I believe in the early 1900 decade, and over here in the States it had been several decades earlier than that) so the memories and personal experiences of large numbers of people who had been so affected were fading or the folks were dying off. New people who had not experienced that personal connection with Christ were coming on the scene.

Then you had the two world wars in there. That has to be some kind of factor, I would believe. Maybe people got used to the church being their place of refuge and safety, providing for them, rather than seeing themselves as needing to be in ministry.

I remember one reason J.B. Phillips wrote his paraphrase of the NT during those times was because ordinary Christians did not understand and were not reading their Bibles. So I think biblical illiteracy was a big factor. The "elders" I have worked with over the years have shown an astonishing level of not understanding the message of Scripture. They know their Bible stories, yes. But do they know how these stories all connect into God's big plan, or how these stories are relevant to their lives today? No. Nor do they realize God is still at work today, rather than someone who was at work long ago.

These are some of the general things I have observed about our elders. In a way, I feel great compassion for them, because for the most part they don't know what they don't know, and they don't realize what stumbling blocks they have been for the past 30 years or so.

And Olive, like you I have seen a handful of people, including my own father before he passed on, coming to realize some things about the faith later in life---but rather than being invigorated by them, being so convicted by them that they believed it was too late to change.

I am glad you are seeing some spiritual renewal in Reading. Incidently I grew up in your sister city of Reading, Pennsylvania here in the states. No renewal there---so far!

Adam Caldwell said...

are you reading Rodney Clapp too? Te hehe...