I’ve written in some of my past posts about the problems faced by mainline churches, concentrating especially on the denomination to which I belong: the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Torn by bitter internal strife, its membership is shrinking and aging, many of its most important institutions are nearing financial disaster, and it is tottering toward the loss of its membership in the worldwide Anglican Communion. I do not follow the problems of the other mainline denominations as closely (nor do I feel as justified in criticizing other people’s churches quite as harshly as I criticize my own), but few observers doubt that the other mainline denominations (groups like the Presbyterians, some of the Lutheran synods, the Methodists and Congregationalists) face similar if not identical troubles of their own. Overall, the mainline churches are losing power and influence in American society even as their numbers shrink.
As a whole, the mainline churches are now making the transition from slow decline to progressive collapse. The kind of meltdown now taking shape in the world of mainline religion would be a catastrophe for American life; the decline of religious influence in the population groups historically served by the mainline churches is already undermining both American politics and culture.
Not everyone thinks that the mainline churches are in crisis or that if they are they need to do something about it. It is certainly true that just because a religious movement is shrinking and unpopular, that doesn’t mean the movement has gone wrong. Jesus was deserted by his disciples on the night he was betrayed; that didn’t mean he needed to rethink his message. Noah’s neighbors mocked and derided him while the ark slowly took shape; that wasn’t a sign from heaven that Noah needed to rethink his priorities. If the biggest church is the best church, that is not an argument for evangelicals against mainliners; it is an argument for Catholics against Protestants. It is, in any case, a vulgar and unscriptural argument unless used with great delicacy and care. It was Elijah standing alone who was right, not the massed and chanting priests of Baal.
It’s also true that it would be inaccurate and unfair to paint all the congregations, institutions and people in the mainline churches with the same brush. I myself know many deeply committed Christians who lead dedicated lives of service to God and their neighbors in the mainline churches and whose spiritual pilgrimages continue to be refreshed and enriched by their participation in mainline church life. I am an Episcopalian myself and owe a debt to the church that can never be repaid.
Finally, it must be said clearly that if the mainline churches are having problems today, this is largely because the challenges of the American church in the last one hundred years have been extraordinary. We are having a difficult time because we live in difficult times; the mainline churches aren’t failing at a simple and obvious thing. There is not some quick fix — doctrinal, managerial or cultural — that could magically restore them to solvency and growth. The challenges that churches have been dealing with include the collapse of the 19th century belief that geology, archaeology and written history supported the authority of the Bible; the erosion of the postmillennial view that saw social progress leading to the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth as part of the spread of Anglo-American religion and social ideas; the revolution in gender relations and family structures that has both theological and practical consequences (as women entered the professional workforce, for example,the volunteer labor force of the churches disappeared); the revolution in race relations that forced a deep revaluation of American history and values; an international situation increasingly dominated by new perils to human existence against the background of increasing distance between rich and poor; demographic changes inside the United States that affected both the size of the mainline churches and their place in the larger society; the intellectual and theological challenges resulting from deeper encounters with non-Christian cultures and religions; the professionalization and bureaucratization of church structures which significantly raised operating costs; the explosion of non-religious culture and leisure opportunities that compete with the traditional role of local churches as providers of these services; and the rise of the automobile which challenged the basic parochial model of congregational life.
This is a partial list; readers can add more. While we don’t need to be whiny and self-dramatizing about these challenges and call them the greatest the church has ever faced, I think it is fair to say that the American church has a lot of work to do, and that God has granted us the privilege of interesting scenery on our journey through life. Those who think that there is some plain and simple path through the minefield of American life that the churches somehow failed to discern underestimate the complexity of the challenge.
Yet at the same time, to stoutly insist that the mainline churches are healthy today strikes me as despair masked in denial. It is not OK that more and more local congregations are grimly struggling with deferred maintenance, dwindling membership and marginal budgets. It is not OK that the mainline churches no longer play the kind of role in public debate or intellectual discourse that they did thirty or fifty years ago. It is not OK that the mainline churches have gotten locked into an antagonistic relationship with most of the church in the developing world. It is not OK that the decline of old models of organization and ministry are far gone in decay but that new alternatives are still struggling to emerge. It is not OK that so many young people raised in the church leave never to return, and that few come from outside to replace them. It is not OK that two generations of theological and liturgical innovations introduced with a conscious intention of making the church more relevant, more approachable and ultimately well, larger, have left the churches smaller and less relevant than before.
There is no one single solution to the problems of the mainline church — or if there is, it has not been revealed to me. But there is something that the mainline churches tend to undervalue, especially in the last two generations, and I think our failure to take it fully into account has cost us dear. It is not the cause of all our problems, but our failure to take it into account is one of the reasons that so many of our challenges has become so daunting.
That something is the principle of sustainability: an institution, an organizational model, a congregation must be on a sustainable path. In a world that is changing as rapidly as ours is, one must constantly test and retest institutions and structures to see if the assumptions underlying them remain sound, if they have a viable economic base, if their strategic direction offers promise.
At the deepest level, this involves the sustainability of the church itself. The mainline churches do not seem to have thought through some of the basic conditions that allow religious organizations to thrive. Religion will not long prosper as a luxury good; it is not primarily a way that comfortable people who are basically happy with their lives can make their lives even richer and more rewarding. A sustainable religion must convince people that it is necessary to life, health and spiritual coherence. A church cannot be one club among many or one leisure activity among many; it must present itself as a bedrock necessity. Not all of its members will take the church at this estimate, but unless a critical mass of its members and leaders feel this way, a denomination (or a congregation) will be entirely dependent on outside cultural and economic forces for its health and even in the long run its survival. A successful church is not one whose pastors and other leaders think a life in church is one calling among many; a critical mass must deeply believe that it this vocation is so critical that they would do it, if need be, for nothing — that they would do it if actively persecuted and flogged from town to town.
A ‘comfortable’ church can survive comfortably enough if the general social environment supports church membership and church pledging. In Eisenhower’s America, it was the ‘done thing’ to belong to church, and people went, pledged and participated. Moreover, the generation of people born around 1920 lived through the Great Depression, World War Two and the terrifying opening years of the Cold War before they turned thirty around 1950; these were serious people by and large who brought some strong convictions into the church. They were a generation who sought order and were willing to pay a price to build orderly institutions. But times changed, and the confident, affluent mainline of the 1950s has never managed to adapt.
The great question for fundamentalist and evangelical religion is the relationship of revelation to modern science. The great question for modernist and mainline religion is the ‘so what’ question. If members are not sinners being saved from the flames of Hell, if Christianity is not the one path of salvation offered by a merciful God to a perishing world, if a relationship with God is not the only means to surmount the challenges of each day much less to meet the great tests of life — why go to church? Why pledge? Why have the kids go to Sunday school rather than soccer practice?
If all religions are more or less true (and, presumably, therefore, all more or less false), why pay particular attention to any one of them? If the churches develop their ethical standards (sex before marriage, divorce, homosexuality, racial justice, political ideas) from secular society and the general American consensus, why go to church for anything except weddings, funerals and Christmas carols? What do you learn in church that you can learn nowhere else? What kind of relationships do you form in church that you can form nowhere else?
Why is churchgoing so important to you that you will not only go there no matter what — but that you will do everything in your power to encourage your friends and neighbors to join you? Why is church the daily bread you must have, not a lovely garnish on an already full plate?
A sustainable religion must have answers to these questions. Otherwise it will slowly fade away.
The mainline churches don’t have to give the same answers to these questions that Billy Sunday gave. But they must answer them; at the moment, too often, they don’t even try. I do not say that it’s a simple thing to answer these questions under contemporary conditions — but I do say that the failure to keep this in focus as the most essential thing that a church must do is a key to the spiritual weakness and, therefore, the broader crisis of the mainline church.
There are other ways in which the mainline churches have failed to make sustainability the touchstone of their approach. The business model of a professional, full time leader in local congregations that own and operate purpose-built buildings has been clearly falling into crisis for a generation. Most ‘judicatories’ (regional groupings of local churches roughly descended from the territorially organized diocesan and parish structure of the Roman Catholic church) have large and growing numbers of local congregations who simply cannot operate this way. They defer maintenance, cut programs to the bone and find that more and more of their energy is required to maintain an existence which is less and less creative and rewarding. This is clearly and blatantly an unsustainable situation, yet most denominations and judicatories have chosen to think about it as little as possible. It is not a marginal problem; it is a core problem that threatens the survival of the institution as a whole. There is an epidemic of denial and avoidance behavior about this and each year the problem gets worse.
A well managed, strategically focused church would have recognized the grave threat these trends posed long ago and cast minor priorities aside to deal with this threat to the mission of the church. This was not done; to a shocking degree even today more mainline energy is expended on denial than on reform.
The mainline has also by and large failed to apply the principle of sustainability to its political and social activity. In 1950 the mainline churches were the leading voices in American religion and they were also the ‘conveners’ of interfaith cooperation. It is difficult to be both the religious establishment and a voice crying out in the wilderness; the mainline churches have, generally speaking, failed to do this well. They have lost most of the influence they once had as moral leaders in society (I cannot think of one mainline theologian whose voice is heard on the national scene today, nor do the pronouncements of any mainline preachers or leaders or groups of leaders seem to have any discernible effect on the national conversation). In excusing this failure, I have heard mainline leaders attribute it to the courage and moral consistency of their witness on key social issues. This is just not true. There have been many examples in past history of churches and other groups of religious leaders who have said unpopular things and dared to disagree with Caesar but whose moral stature and influence has grown and not diminished. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is having trouble today as a result of their failure to manage some serious internal issues; however, they have historically maintained a powerful and often oppositional voice in society.
It seems clear that the mainline leadership never really thought through its ventures into politics. Good political and moral leadership is not a question of sallying forth against any and every wrong; political ventures must rest on a strategic vision that integrates a sound theological, pastoral and political vision of how ones moral power can be conserved and built. The mainline has by and large squandered its moral leadership in society. It has dissipated what was once a considerable store of political and moral capital rather than increasing it and its current custom of issuing robotically predictable and universally ignored statements of ‘concern’ in a scattershot way discredits both message and messenger.
Burning convictions of transcendent importance linked to strategic thinking of the first order: these are the qualities that enable a religious tradition to flourish. Despite important individual and local exceptions, by and large the mainline churches today are falling short on both counts.
Time is growing short. I do not know if the churches can pull out of the death spiral. Revolutionary options like widespread denominational and parochial mergers, the virtual end of church bureaucracies, the end of the seminary system and the sale of large numbers of church properties will all have to be considered on the administrative side. Spiritual renewal is even more important. Without an extraordinary surge of passion and commitment from people who believe that a revived mainline ministry can save souls, change lives and perhaps help save the world — and who are willing to build their lives around this commitment — it is hard to see these slow thinking, slower moving, stiff jointed and elderly giants of the American religious landscape scrambling to safety as the flood waters rise.