Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mainline Decline and the "So What" Question

I've cited Walter Russell Mead's critical perspective on the Episcopal Church (and mainline churches more generally) in earlier postings. In a recent essay, Mead addresses the complex question, "Where Did the Mainline Go Wrong?" "As a whole," Mead writes, "the mainline churches are now making the transition from slow decline to progressive collapse."

It's typically easier to offer descriptive and pejorative criticism than it is to offer constructive proposals for what to do about a problem. And the problem of mainline meltdown is certainly no different. "
There is no one single solution to the problems of the mainline church," Mead observes, "or if there is, it has not been revealed to me." Nonetheless, Mead thinks that our tendency to undervalue the principle of sustainability is one of the major reasons for decline. Sustainability includes not merely sound institutional assumptions, a solid economic base, and a well-planned strategic direction. It also includes answering the "So what?" question in a way that inspires loyalty and (oftentimes counter-cultural) commitment to the path of discipleship. Mead is worth quoting at length about this:

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 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. ...

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.

The mainline churches don’t have to give the same answers to these questions that Billy Sunday gave. But they must answer them; at the moment, too often, they don’t even try. I do not say that it’s a simple thing to answer these questions under contemporary conditions — but I do say that the failure to keep this in focus as the most essential thing that a church must do is a key to the spiritual weakness and, therefore, the broader crisis of the mainline church.

Read it all.

I think Mead has rightly diagnosed a central problem in this passage. Add to it the politicization of the Church and the ways in which we increasingly think of the Church as an extension of our lifestyle enclaves, special interest groups, and political party affiliations and the problems get that much worse.


The Underground Pewster said...

Thanks for posting this.

It sometimes seems as though one is taking the easy way out by generating questions without providing the answers, but it is the most important step in generating testable hypotheses.

Having been raised in the Episcopal church, I hate to see the loss of liturgical traditions, teachings, and doctrine, but which if any of these losses is causal to the decline or not is always going to be subject to debate. I wonder, if the decline is more due to a loss of faith not just in our God, but in the whole idea of God and his power, his holiness beyond our imagination, and a loss in a belief in a real afterlife with Him. I soldier on because I long to see Him, others have either assumed that, like their interpration of the story of the prodigal son, they will be accepted no matter what, or since they have no experience of the eternal, and no experience or direct knowledge, they choose to ignore religious questions.

Coming from a place where we have experienced, studied, and committed ourselves to the "So What", the real question becomes "How?" As in how to change "so what" into "OMG!". 2000 years and we are still grappling with that question.

Bryan Owen said...

I think you're on to something important, Underground Pewster, in considering the possibility that part of the reason for our decline comes back to a loss of faith in God. Perhaps we trust more in our own agendas, believing that we are in charge. And perhaps this is a manifestation of sin which, as defined by the Prayer Book, means "the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation" (BCP, p. 848). Evidence of distorted relationships abound, and in that sense, the Church often looks little different to me than the rest of the world.

GLyell said...

Bryan is also on to something important. We need to spend more time identifying and talking about sin -- all of those manifestations by which we seek our own will instead of the will of God, etc.

I want to be made to feel unconfortable about my sins, and I enjoy being confronted and challenged from the pulpit. I firmly believe that the Church's failure to do this more often is a major factor in its decline.