Mainline killed the local church star — paper blinks

The death of a congregation is never pleasant, and the closure of the West Side Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey was no exception. Sunday, Nov. 3, was to see a final worship service at the 117-year-old congregation.

According to The Bergen (N.J.) Record, simple demographics are to blame:

“It’s going to be a good farewell,” said Bob Ryder, president of board of trustees for the Presbytery of the Palisades, which oversees nearly 50 Presbyterian churches in North Jersey.

West Side’s closure is part of a national demographic shift away from mainline Protestant churches. Suburban communities such as Englewood, where Protestants were once the dominant group, have seen an influx of Hispanics, who are more likely to be Catholic, Asian immigrants, who belong to different faiths, and Orthodox Jewish families.

Another factor is that an increasing percentage of people are not joining any church. About one-fifth of Americans and one-third of those under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

In the Presbyterian denomination alone, 86 churches disbanded last year after national membership dropped by more than 100,000 from 2011 to 2012, according to Presbyterian Church USA. The Presbytery of the Palisades has closed five churches in the past 10 years, including two in Hackensack and one each in Garfield and Edgewater, Ryder said.

Now, it’s entirely possible that shifting demographics and the “rise of the nones” that caused the closure of five churches in the Presbytery of the Palisades. It’s possible, but I have to wonder if the 2011 actions of the PCUSA’s General Assembly, among other moves away from historic Presbyterian positions, might have had something to do with the departures as well. Surely not all 86 PCUSA congregations disbanded over demographics alone, did they?

We get only that demographic logic from the story, but as Godbeat veteran Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal notes:

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Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

What followed was a fascinating discussion of atonement theories and God’s love, featuring Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI and church fathers alike.

You could also read about this hymnal debate in Christianity Today and throughout the Christian press and blogosphere. It was huge news and a major point of discussion.

Everywhere, that is, except for in the mainstream media.

The thing is, as anyone who regularly worships God with the aid of a hymnal can tell you, liturgy and song are major issues. They define our relationship to God and our understanding of hymn. They convey the doctrine of the church with amazing efficacy. Martin Luther called music theology’s handmaiden. One of the most exciting stories of my church body’s recent history was the assembly, production and widespread acceptance of our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book “proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation; celebrating Christ and all His benefits; giving voice to the people’s thanksgiving and praise”). Even if my church body’s worship wars aren’t quite as dramatic as other denominations, developing a hymnal used by millions is no small feat. I know a little bit about that story and it involved some hard-fought battles over theology and practice.

Some readers had noted the lack of mainstream media discussion about an interesting story from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s hymnal development project. And it is interesting that 100% of all stories related to anything involving same-sex attraction are greenlighted for the front page of metro dailies (or so it seems) while a really interesting theological debate isn’t even covered.

So major props to The Tennessean for not just reporting the story but adding some helpful depth to it as well. It begins:

Fans of a beloved Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

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