Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why the Church is in Trouble

Not everybody liked Walter Russell Mead's criticism of the liberal prophetic witness of some Episcopal bishops which I noted in my previous posting. It's received far more comments elsewhere than on this blog. And from what I can tell, some conservatives uncritically embrace Mead in his blog posting "Sunday Jeremiad: Petty Prophets of the Blue Beast" with glee (which troubles me as it suggests taking pleasure in the decline of our church). On the other hand, some "progressives" offer knee-jerk, defensive responses that make me wonder if they've actually read Mead's piece.

The fact is that the Episcopal Church is hemorrhaging money and membership. We are on life support. And regardless of what anyone's politics or theology may say about the pressing social and moral issues of the day, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a time when the fields are ripe for harvesting (perhaps particularly among the 20-30 something crowd).

In an earlier posting, I summed it up like this:

Aging membership + conflict + declining financial health + little interest in or understanding of evangelism = no viable future.

In a piece posted earlier this month, this is how the aforementioned Walter Russell Mead puts it:

The Christian churches in the United States are in trouble for all the usual reasons — human sinfulness and selfishness, the temptations of life in an affluent society, doctrinal and moral controversies and uncertainties and on and on and on — but also and to a surprisingly large degree they are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth. The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today. They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.

Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination). Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners. And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year. The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try. People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.

At the next level up, there is another level of ecclesiastical bureaucrats and officials staffing regional offices. When my dad was a young priest in the Episcopal diocese of North Carolina back in the late 1950s the bishop had a secretary and that was pretty much it for diocesan staff. These days the Episcopal church is in decline, with perhaps a third to a half or more of its parishes unable to meet their basic expenses and with members dying off or drifting away much faster than new people come through the door — but no respectable bishop would be caught dead with the pathetic staff with which Bishop Baker ran a healthy and growing diocese in North Carolina back in the 1950s. ...

Bishops today in their sinking, decaying dioceses surround themselves with large staffs who hold frequent meetings and no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, although nobody outside the office ever quite knows what these are. And it isn’t just Anglicans. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, UCC, the whole crowd has pretty much the same story to tell. Staffs grow; procedures flourish and become ever more complex; more and more years of school are required from an increasingly ‘professional’ church staff: everything gets better and better every year — except somehow the churches keep shrinking. Inside, the professionals are pretty busy jumping through hoops and writing memos to each other and grand sweeping statements of support for raising the minimum wage and other noble causes — but outside the regional headquarters and away from the hum of the computers and printers, local congregations lose members, watch their buildings fall year by year into greater disrepair, and in the end they close their doors.

There’s another parallel structure: the seminary system. Peter, James and Paul didn’t have any degrees or professional training, but that is not good enough for us today. Our priests, elders, ministers or whatever we call them must be professionals. They must have graduate degrees from an accredited institution with a tenured faculty and, best case, a large grassy campus. These schools are expensive; students need to take out very large student loans, which must be paid back out of the salaries which, increasingly, shrinking congregations can’t pay. The tenured faculty, like tenured faculties everywhere, is generally less interested in teaching than in ‘research’ into various arcane but no doubt highly interesting ideas that can be published in peer-reviewed journals. Science! Progress! When it comes to theology, they are more interested in academically hot new ideas than in that boring old stuff that has been around forever.

Of course, like almost all academics, seminary professors must sometimes put their research aside and trudge into the classroom, but when they do (like their colleagues and peers in so many universities and colleges across this great and dysfunctional country of ours) they often want to teach recondite and abstract subjects rather than the dull, pragmatic bread and butter topics that church pastors actually need to understand. There are glorious exceptions: but we have somehow built ourselves an unsustainably expensive and cumbersome system which is geared to produce and support dysfunction.

Finally, denominations maintain national staffs — both individually and collectively. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others have national headquarters and/or lobbying presences in Washington; they also join to support a national staff for the NCCC (National Council of the Churches of Christ). Again it is rather mysterious what these organizations all do — but it is clear that if any of their work is directed at promoting the growth of the congregations of their respective denominations or of increasing church membership in other ways, they have little but failure to show for the millions of dollars they’ve spent over the years.

In the spirit of Martin Luther, let me post a provocative thesis on the wall: If virtually the entire regional and national staff of every mainline denomination were to be called home to heaven overnight in a mainline version of the Rapture, leaving only the equivalent of Bishop Baker and his secretary in their place, I am sure that someone somewhere would notice a difference, but the effect on either the spiritual state of American Christians or the health and well being of local congregations throughout the United States would be hard to detect with the naked eye.

Maybe that goes a bit far, but it’s much too close to accurate for comfort.

Those bureaucracies, institutions, and assumptions: It’s holy crap and it’s got to go.

What would we do instead? Scale down and build a mission-centered church.

Some may read Mead as attacking the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches. Harsh as his words may sound, I don't think that's accurate. On the contrary, his criticism aims for a positive end, as the last two sentences in what I've quoted suggest (and as the rest of the piece demonstrates). And while he may not be 100% correct in his analysis or in his take on what to do about our decline, I think he's pinpointed some hard truths that we who love the institutional church do well to take a look at it. For if he's even partly correct, our very survival may depend on it.

Read it all.


Derek the Ænglican said...

Mostly true words.

He's not an academic and doesn't seem to understand the point of academic research. Research and teaching are mutually informing endeavours. I can't teach the mundanities of New Testament, liturgy, and preaching effectively without burrowing into sets of 9th century manuscripts that he would no doubt see as a waste of my time. Furthermore, what I find there is impacted by what I teach as teaching shapes the very questions I ask. So--off-base there but in the main he's saying what a number of us have been saying.

I'd even go a bit further personally. Even "mission" can become a project that displaces and misplaces our proper effort and focus. Our proper effort and focus is on Jesus and patterning ourselves as his disciples. Mission flows from that rather than the other way around...

A. D. Hunt said...

I really have enjoyed these Mead articles you have linked. They, along with your recent posts Derek, have inspired me to take up blogging about theological education again.

Christopher said...

I'm sorry but I read more than a whiff of American anti-intellectualism in this piece that does not reflect the complexity of what I have observed in seminary settings with often highly devoted faculty.

Having grown up in a tradition where pastors often had very little in the way of theological education, I am reminded that our tradition has encouraged a learned piety. How that happens may need to change due to changes in economies of scale, but I will not diss the intellectual pursuits, curiosity in research, or educated clergy and lay leaders. To do so is to reduce education, in a very American fashion, to product, something Archbishop Williams has imho rightly critcized.

Bryan Owen said...

Mead may well be wrong about many Episcopal seminaries, but I'm not sure he needs to be an academic to comment on what seminaries need to be doing to train priests to serve in parish settings. I'm sorry, but speaking as an academically trained person myself, saying otherwise sounds more than a bit elitist.

I agree that we need seminary trained clergy, but the question is what kind of training. I may well have been warped by my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the 90s, but based upon that experience, I resonate with Mead's criticisms. The alleged purpose of Vanderbilt Div School was to train persons to serve as pastors in their respective denominations. But what we spent most of our time doing was deconstructing the faith of the church in compliance with a politically correct liberal orthodoxy. Most of the professors couldn't have cared less about teaching the intro courses, and good Lord did it show. They cared more about their research projects, cutting edge as those projects were. I'm still waiting for the world to change in the wake of all of that scholarship ...