By David LaMotte
A recent article in the Courier-Journal, a hometown newspaper of the Presbyterian Church (USA) national offices, noted a sad statistic: this year, its membership has fallen to half of its largest size, from its high point in 1965. The author, Peter Smith, goes on to examine possible reasons for the decline, writing that the most frequently cited theories are "liberal trends in theology, sexuality and politics; a hesitancy to evangelize; and/or the low birth rates and aging ranks of its main demographic -- non-Hispanic whites." That is a fascinating list to contemplate, and it may be applicable to mainline Protestant churches in general.
The church is not monolithic; responses to these institutional trends are as varied as the individuals in the pews. The aforementioned "liberal trends" may make some parishioners uncomfortable by welcoming others into the fold. Welcoming gay people into a church or into church leadership may be hard for some conservatives, for instance, and welcoming racial and ethnic minorities may make those with deep traditions in the church feel suddenly and painfully unfamiliar with their faith communities. Those hurts should not be discounted; they may result not only in personal pain and reduced numbers of people in the pews, but in significant losses of members with valuable gifts to share within a given faith community. Naturally, it is also painful to be the one who is rejected, and faith communities lose out on valuable gifts, and individuals, in that way as well.
The church, however, is not fundamentally a business. Unlike a bank, for instance, the fundamental question that church leaders have to ask themselves is not "how do we grow the organization?" Rather, it is "what is faithful?" In exploring that question as it pertains to the trends cited as causes for the diminution of mainline churches, I look primarily to the words and actions of Jesus.
The New Testament shows a clear pattern of inclusivity. Whether Jesus is welcoming Mary to sit and listen, correcting the disciples when they want to shoo the children out of a meeting, or talking with the outcast woman at the well, he seems to constantly push the boundaries of how we define "us." Posing the question "Who is my neighbor?" is another way of wrestling with group self-definition, and Jesus answers that question with the story of the Good Samaritan, where the marginalized foreigner -- of a reviled ethnicity and religion -- is the hero. Clearly, faithfulness has something to do with welcoming people, whether they are like "us" or not.
That welcoming is also intrinsic to evangelism. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, "Preach constantly. If necessary, use words." Social justice work (caring for the tangible needs of marginalized people and challenging their structural oppression) is one way to do that preaching, both verbally and non-verbally. Jesus devoted a great deal of his ministry to talking about how we should attend to each other's needs and deal with each other, so if we care about what Jesus had to say, then Christianity is fundamentally intertwined with social justice. That work may sometimes make us uncomfortable, though, and this may be one of the central questions mainline Christians have to wrestle with in coming years -- are we willing to embrace social discomfort as part of our faith? Looking at the examples of biblical prophets and disciples, not to mention Christian activists like Dr. King or Desmond Tutu, getting a bit outside of our comfort zone seems a moderate price to pay. Even if it is steep, though, it is the cost of faithfulness.
Among my friends who are particularly skeptical of organized religion, the criticism I hear most often is a perceived lack of authenticity. We Christians talk a great deal about love, but in the experience of some of those friends, we have offered primarily judgment. If we are to be relevant to the struggles of people around us, and therefore true to Christ's teaching, we will need to wrestle with what love means. Is it just an emotion? Just feeling warmly toward people?
I don't think so. I don't believe that ‘love,' as Jesus spoke of it, is merely an extreme version of ‘liking.' Most people who have families can probably attest that one can continue to love people without liking them much on a given day. It may be that the kind of love Jesus was talking about has more to do with actions than feelings, more to do with holding others' value and welfare up as equally significant to one's own, treating people with compassion and respect even when we don't feel like it. If we are to reach the skeptics, we have to back up our talk about love with tangible examples of it. We have to be bold in our loving, and as it turns out, reaching out with compassionate action may well be the best way to evangelize. We must be willing and able to articulate why we take such actions when we are asked, but without action, our words are hollow.