In a recent article, Anglican theologian, Ben Crosby says something I’ve said elsewhere about the decline of Mainline Protestantism. But – usefully – he does it by focusing on the answers to two critical questions.
1. Do we think that a relationship with Jesus is necessary to achieve certain goods (traditionally, salvation)? If the ‘relationship’ language concerns you, feel free to substitute ‘connected with’, ‘joined to’, or what have you.
2. Do we think that the church is the normative means by which that necessary relationship with Jesus is established, nurtured, and maintained?
While there are theological nuances to sort through, he notes that if your answer to those two questions are “no”, then you have named the reason you aren’t concerned about slipping denominational numbers. If the church is just one more spiritual path among endless alternatives and if it lacks any kind of normative character in your thinking about the spiritual life, then the decline of mainline denominations is just a product of taste, inclination, and connection. It might be a cause for personal reasons, particularly if it means that your preferred path is struggling for its existence. But, Crosby notes, you won’t be inclined to see that decline as a “catastrophe”.
Crosby notes that coming to the realization that he would answer those questions in the affirmative and that others would answer one or both in the negative has been helpful to him. He is more patient with conversations about the subject. And – even if he does believe that the decline of his tradition is a catastrophe – he has, at least, a better understanding why others don’t share his urgency.
But I would go further and suggest that if you’ve answered both questions in the negative (allowing for the nuances that Crosby offers), then you have probably also identified the reason that mainline Protestantism is struggling. Participation in the body of Christ is voluntary, but for those who find it compelling, it is also necessary and normative.
It doesn’t take extensive sociological analysis or mountains of data to conclude that those who don’t have limited and tenuous reasons for participating in the life of the church, never mind the unique kind of devotion that accompanies the conviction that in Christ, God has made a decisive claim upon our lives. As Crosby notes, you don’t need to believe that people who don’t worship in your denomination are going to hell. And you may, as I heard one Bishop put it, the eternal destiny of humankind is “above [our] pay grade”. But if you don’t believe that the Christian message is essential and that life in the body of Christ commends itself as the path that God has provided us, neither will the people around us.
So, the decline in denominational numbers is not all that hard to identify. There are, to be sure, a wide array of factors at the margins: Shrinking rural communities, the disintegration of the family, the options offered by social media, the impact of Covid, the erosion of the conviction that Sunday is for church, and the rise in both political and social tensions within the church. But those factors would not exercise the power that they do if it weren’t for the answers far too many mainline Protestants tender to those questions.
For priests, deacons, and dedicated lay people who can say “yes” to both of Crosby’s questions, the good news is this: We can provide a space where people can join us in searching and worship. We can treat with respect and attention the questions, struggles, and doubts that people bring with them. We don’t need to tell them they are going to hell or that they can’t ask questions.
But we can do what our Lord did. We can welcome them, engage them in conversation, and give the Holy Spirit the space needed to do its work. We can offer people the ancient mysteries of the church, struggling alongside of them to make sense of our faith in a modern and complex world. And that is what builds Christian communities.
Denominations will continue to struggle. For all the reasons I have outlined above. Because ultimately connections and community cannot be sustained by large, bureaucratic structures.
But that need not be true of individual congregations of any size, if they live out of the urgency framed by an affirmative answer to Crosby’s questions.