A path forward for American churches experiencing decline
January 11, 2023
If current trends continue for several more decades, Christians may well discover that they no longer make up a majority of Americans, a recent Pew Research study says.
And at the moment there's no good reason to suspect that won't happen, given that the downward membership trend has been going on for decades.
That has sent scholars and church leaders scrambling to figure out what to do. It won't surprise you, if you know much about Christianity in the U.S., that this scrambling has produced a lot of ideas that so far haven't worked too well. Andrew Root, author of Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age, thinks he knows why.
Church leaders, he insists, are focusing on finding more resources to do more programming, on quick ideas based on "innovation and entrepreneurship" to draw in new members and on calling pastors who don't really grasp either the foundational problem or the solution.
Root, a professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., says churches are adopting modern business and related commercial practices and, thus, failing to understand that their primary job is to proclaim "a living God who speaks and moves in the world," a loving God who intends to redeem the world.
A primary task of the church, therefore, is to help people learn how to discern that reality in a culture that largely rejects -- and thus is closed off from -- ideas about transcendency. Focusing on that task, in turn, provides opportunities for real, generative and memorable life to happen with and to church members and to the people and systems outside the church to which and to whom those members connect.
The book is rooted in an exploration of the pastoral experience of Karl Barth, the great 20th Century Swiss theologian known more for his exploration and explanations of theology than for his pastoral insights.
But it's from those insights that Root draws a series of compelling ideas that American pastors and their congregants can adopt -- ideas rooted in the paradoxical, dialectical world of a living God who dies on a cross, a God who connects time with eternity, the mortal with the immortal.
This is the God who calls the creation "good" and "very good" but who then sends the great Noahic flood. This is the sovereign of the universe who comes to humanity as a helpless baby in a backwater nation under the rule of a despotic empire. Humanity's response, often, is not to live comfortably in this both/and world with this paradoxical God but to demand an answer to this question: So which is it, God? Pick one or the other, not both. We seem to be put off and, well, mystified by mystery. We prefer, it seems, a Jack Webb just-the-facts, ma'am, world, meaning we erase the poetry from life.
This complicated God of love and judgment, Root insists (with Barth and others), is wholly other and, thus, unknowable. And yet, in this paradoxical, dialectic mode, this unknowable God is revealed to humanity in the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. The church, he says, must take both realities seriously even if they seem to conflict with one another. Root writes that because modernity rejects the supernatural, Barth "chooses to start with incoherence. Pastor Barth is wagering that the only way toward a coherence that attends to God's action is to embrace incoherence."
It was, in other words, Barth's way of challenging modernity's ridiculous but boldly confident claim that eventually it could -- through science and other disciplines -- explain everything, from the vastness of the cosmos to the mysteries of the subatomic world.
Barth, thus, didn't want people to explain God. He wanted them, instead, to experience God's presence and actions in the world. By pointing people to that experience today's church can find hope, Root insists. His assertion, he writes, is that the modern world "cannot keep out this wild God of Israel who acts in history and speaks directly to persons." The church, in other words, should proclaim the reality of that God and help people discern how to experience the divine presence for the good and ultimately for the redemption of the world.
Barth gained fame after World War I for his commentary on the book of Romans. In it, he rejected both "pietism" and "liberal" theology and returned to something like orthodoxy in light of what the war revealed about humanity. Pietism suggested God was fully available to anyone who kept certain rules and acted in certain ways. Liberal theology suggested that humankind was, in the end, perfectible. (Ha.)
But the bloody horror of the war shook those theologies to their core. Indeed, after the war the poet Ezra Pound put this radical disillusionment this way: "There died a myriad, And of the best, among them, For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization. . ." Similarly, Root puts it this way: "The Great War revealed that modernity could not produce its own salvation. . .By dismissing transcendence, modernity was unable to give hope."
Out of all of that has come an approach to theology and to ecclesiology (how the church works) that is rooted in the idea that the story the church must tell is not about itself but about God and the world God loves. When churches lose that idea and, instead, make themselves the star of their story, Root says, decline is inevitable. Root reminds everyone that "God seeks salvation for the world, not for the church."
Well, there is much more in this book that can help thoughtful pastors and other Christian leaders. Just know that it is not an easy read. That's true first because modern churches may experience the pain of recognition in what Root says they're getting wrong. But, second, it's true because the book is needlessly repetitive and uses too much specialty language that one often finds in academic writing. What I've called the "modern world" in this review, for instance, Root insists on calling the "immanent frame." And that's just a small example.
That said, the story that Root tells of a church he makes up for purposes of this book is quite engaging and revealing. So this book contains much of value and can help churches today rethink who they are and what their real purpose is. Churches searching for new pastors would do well to give this book a careful read before they decide who should lead them next.
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THE UNITED METHODISTS CONTINUE TO DIVIDE
Now there's more evidence that the slow schism in the United Methodist Church denomination is continuing. South Carolina’s largest United Methodist church is moving toward leaving the large Mainline Protestant denomination, this RNS story reports. The issue -- as it has been in similar breakups in other denominations -- has its roots in what the Bible says, if anything, about LGBTQ+ folks. The South Carolina church is coming down on the side of those who would use religion not to liberate people but to oppress them. My essay (find it here) about what the Bible says about homosexuality explains why that's the wrong use of scripture.
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P.S.: I had a note a few days ago from a British writer named Rachael Kearney, who alerted me to her daily reflections about God. Check out her site here. I especially liked one on the seasons under the headline "Winter."