Earlier this week, Philip touched on Ross Douthat’s provocative — if not particularly original — NYT op-ed on the demise of the Episcopal Church, USA. As a member of the also rapidly dwindling Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the issues involved are both familiar and personal to me as well. (The PCUSA has lost about 20 percent of its members in the past decade).
Douthat’s essay was not simplistic, contrary to the otherwise rather effective rebuttal of Diana Butler Bass. He recognizes that many Christian groups, not just liberal mainline Protestant denominations, are struggling:
Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
Bass correctly warns that theological conservatism is not an antidote for everything that ails American Christianity. Still, Douthat is right that “if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed.” If Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans have experienced a halt to membership growth, the decline of many liberal churches has been catastrophic.
These sorts of debates tend to go around in circles. If one’s church is growing, it is easy to interpret that growth as a reflection of God’s approval and blessing. If one’s church is declining in numbers, it is easy to take a perverse pride in smaller numbers, interpreting them as the necessary cost of fidelity. It is remarkable that human beings can take pride in nearly any circumstance.
A few thoughts:
1. Both churches that are growing and those that are declining should eschew self-righteousness. Growth should, in a sense, be cause for celebration. If one believes in any message, it is wonderful to see others accept it. However, those churches that are growing today might be declining in ten years, and decline is never a cause for celebration.
2. There is no simple answer to the question of adaptation. For an extremely long amount of time (at least since the early-to-mid-nineteenth century), critics have insisted that Christianity needed to adapt to modern culture, ideas, etc. in order to survive. Douthat correctly points out the irony that those churches that most eagerly make such adaptations have declined catastrophically. Note the divergent path of mainline and evangelical campus ministries since the 1960s.
At the same time, I imagine that most churches that have thrived have made a substantial accommodation to modernity, both in terms of culture and theology, for better and worse. In terms of growth, it has long been the case that the most important forms of adaptation are cultural, not theological or intellectual. For instance, those churches that adopted contemporary forms of worship beginning in the 1970s were the ones that experienced the most growth.
3. I used to care a fair amount about denominational politics, and I used to have more time for them. Then I decided I really didn’t want to expend my spiritual energy on such matters. I care a great deal more about my local congregation (well, my past local congregations — we just moved and need to find a new one) than I do about my denomination. I know that I should care more, but at a certain point I just started caring less. It is much more important to me to attend a local church with faithful and thought-provoking preaching, faith-nurturing and fun children’s programs, and music that does not cause deafness.