But things have changed. It's obvious that churches no longer play most of these social functions. We are now a massively pluralistic society living in an increasingly globalized world. Every major world religion is represented among United States citizens.

Take the question of authority. In the frontier town, the Southern city, or the New England village there was the authority of the law and the government. A lot of folks weren't very educated, so they didn't read much, and there was no radio or TV. The pastor of the church was not only the moral and spiritual authority -- the representative of the only true religion and its obviously true scriptures -- but also probably the most educated person in town. He (there were virtually no female pastors!) spoke with authority on a wide variety of issues that were important to the society of his day.

Contrast that with today's situation. Rarely are pastors approached as figures of authority, except (sometimes!) within their own congregations. Radio, television, and the Internet are our primary authorities for the information we need, with newspapers, advertisements, and movies coming in a close second. For many American Christians, Beliefnet.com ("Your Trusted Source for Free Daily Inspiration & Faith") is a bigger authority on matters of Christian belief and practice than any pastor. We love self-help books, so we're more likely to read Spirituality for Dummies than to go to a group Bible study. Forty years ago people were influenced in their judgments about religious matters not only by their pastor but also by the editorials in the Religion section of their local newspaper. Today the blogs one happens to read are more likely to influence belief.

 

Where's the Revolution?

I'm almost embarrassed to list these differences, because they're so obvious. But here's the amazing fact: Denominations aren't changing. In most cases they're not planning for and investing in new forms of church for this brave new world. (There are some great exceptions.)

This is not a matter of blame. The assignment of the administrators who head up denominations is to run the organization that they've been given. I once heard a major national leader say to a group of similar leaders something like, "We all know that the ship is in grave danger, and it may go down. But we all seem to have the attitude, ‘Not on my watch!'"

Pastors have a bit more latitude. Individual pastors and churches are doing amazing things across the U.S. (and outside it); so are parachurch and extra-church groups, organizations, and ministries. But in most cases, it's the denominations that determine how pastors are educated, what kinds of ministries they can engage in, and what kinds of church assignments they get. A lot of young men and women lose their idealism in seminary. (That's a damning fact that I, as a seminary teacher, take very, very seriously.) If they have the good fortune to depart seminary with their idealism intact, they're generally assigned to a traditional church that has virtually no youth or younger families present, an average age of 60, and a major budget crisis on its hands. The orders are, "Keep this church alive!" The church members like the old hymns and liturgies; they don't like tattoos, rock music, or electronics. They are about as likely to read and respond to blogs as I am to play in the Super Bowl. So the young pastor folds her idealism away in a closet and struggles to offer the traditional ministry that churches want.