Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Declare Success in My Career!

When I was in my first church, someone asked me what I hoped to accomplish in the church. My response then and ever was: “I want to drag the church out of the 17th century (or the 16th or the 5th or the 4th)!” Now for many millions of people this has come to pass.

1965 was the high point of membership in mainline Protestant churches. I joined in 1966 and from that time on membership declined. I swear that I was not the cause of this. Many like me in my generation weren’t good supporters of the status quo, but I was in that cohort that decided to try to change things from within the system. I’m not sure that it worked. I suspect things would have changed without me.

Many conservatives blamed “liberals” like me for wrecking the church by promoting social action, supporting minority rights, the poor, the hungry, and for talking too much about war and peace. There was a Ross Douthat op-ed piece in the New York Times this week saying exactly that thing. The kind of church Mr. Douthat wants is the one Tom Paine said was “the shame of God.”

One of my teachers, Carl Dudley, responded with a sociological analysis titled Where Have All the People Gone? Much of the loss had been demographic – we didn’t have enough children to sustain the membership and too many children weren’t sticking around. The National Council of Churches responded with Punctured Preconceptions, a statistical analysis which showed that more people had left the church because it hadn’t changed enough than had left because it supported too much change.

The world was changing very fast (and the change has accelerated). Many who wanted to keep up had to leave the church because it couldn’t. Some of us wanted to allow children to participate in the Lord’s Supper before Confirmation. (Many children would leave the church after Confirmation.) New theologies were proposed and preached which were challenging spiritually as well as politically.

There’s that word, spiritual. What does it mean? "Spirituality" before 1978 (or thereabouts) would have been understood as “discipleship.” It was about following Jesus and participating in the church, not because your friends and neighbors did, and not because it was helpful socially as people worked their way up a corporate ladder into the middle or upper classes. It meant allowing yourself to be influenced by the teachings and example of Jesus and the heroes of the faith who had gone before. In my earlier life this included Albert Schweitzer, Pearl Buck (Presbyterian but suspected Commie), Bonhoeffer, and even Gandhi.

Issues of gay rights have dominated the churches since the late ‘70's. Public attitudes towards gays have become much more positive since then. The churches are following (instead of leading).

Spirituality is popular because it avoids the 4th and 16th centuries. We don’t have to fight about “beliefs” so much now. I think more people in and outside of churches think that Jesus thought we (as a society, not just as individuals) owed something to the poor and that he didn’t support war. If that is so, that’s my victory and success.


Anonymous said...

But why bother with church then? Why run twice as fast to stay in the same place?

Michael_SC said...

Look at the way that fairness and equality under the law (though not economic equality) have advanced in the US in the past few decades. It has been said that the 'traditional' (pre-modern) churches have higher membership, but that our society is more reflective of the vision of the mainlines. So in that sense, mainline has not 'declined', it has dispersed its vision through society; I'd call that a win.

Anonymous said...

So the Mainlines support obesity, single-mom families and growing rates of functional illiteracy? Infrastructure decline?
Basically, Mainline Protestantism "won" the easy ones: the one dealing with sex. We can pretend that we all have the money and social resources to raise illegitimate children, just like the upper class, and that this will have absolutely no influence on these children's futures-or their children's children's futures.
And the gays. We can be married and gay.
Forty years of "prophetic ministry" and this is what you get for it?
The irony is that the Fundiegelicals
are the ones doing most of the children out of wedlock and obesity and poor education; the only ones doing fairly well are the upper middle classes-Mainline Protestantism's core constituency. Does this mean you wanted them to enjoy high levels of social dissolution? That somehow their lives are more "progressive" because having more children without a father makes them more attracted to other parts of the "Constituency of Conscience"? Or you thought you'd write the laws and "fight the good fight" and because they were often White like you, these changes would have the same effects on their lives that they've had on yours (small)?
Looks more like you drifted with the tide far more than you "struggled for a fairer world". Like a piece of seaweed calling itself a champion swimmer by being carried across Boston Harbour.