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.