Three weeks ago I wrote a post about the declining membership statistics in the PC(USA). It was a well read post and received some great responses. (I’m especially grateful for posts from Deb Avery and Dennis Sanders.)
In general, I found the commentary and Facebook threads fascinating. There are those of us who are digging in their heels and seem very defensive and defiant about the decline of the PC(USA). There are those of us who insist on pointing to vital congregations as evidence that hope is not lost. There are those of us who have given up on playing the game of denominational survival or reform but are still happy to serve in thriving PC(USA) churches. There are those of us who have lost interest in this conversation altogether.
When I call attention to the declining numbers of the PC(USA)—and I could do this for any of the mainline denominations, but the PC(USA) is where I live and serve—I don’t do this to be negative, critical, blame-casting, or bleak. I look at these numbers as facts that we need to talk about and can’t just ignore or try to obscure with inspiring stories of the things that are actually working.
I’ve come to consider the eventual end of most mainline Protestant denominations as inevitable—not because I think they are bad or because they have failed, but because the context of ministry in the United States has significantly changed and these forms of church are becoming increasingly mismatched for current realities and needs. After several years of trying to change the systems and institutions of one of these denominations, and based on what I read of those trying to do the same elsewhere, I no longer think that they can be reformed as they currently exist. And perhaps it is because I wasn’t raised in one of these denominations, but I don’t really grieve this inevitability. Mainline Protestant denominations served a valuable purpose for a particular time in the United States, but that time has passed. And though, while we’re in the midst of them, we tend to think more of them than that really are, none of these denominations are the kingdom of God.
I am more convinced than ever that what we are experiencing is the death of one relatively small form of Christianity (given the full sweep of Christian history) and the birth of something new. If you have not read Diana Butler Bass’ most recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, you really need to do so. While her initial work focused on congregational studies which provided a counter-narrative or minority report to mainline decline by describing the practices of vital congregations—the kinds of stories that many mainline leaders cling to—her most recent work takes a wider look at the mainline Protestant situation and accounts for the realities of decline and non-participation that we cannot ignore. She postulates that religious decline is the death of old forms of American Christianity before the birth of something new, what she considers a fourth Great Awakening. The faith that is emerging is non-dogmatic, experiential, relational, environmentally conscience, and pluralistic.
So I will keep pointing to our rapidly declining numbers—not for self-pity, defeatism, or schadenfreude—but because the sooner we realize that what we are doing is no longer working, the sooner we will get about the business of birthing something new. And rather than pointing to thriving mainline congregations and initiatives as evidence that there is still life left in mainline institutions, I will follow Bass’ lead and look to these congregations and leaders as the laboratories and catalysts of the new thing(s) coming to be. These are the platforms from which God will launch something new and exciting, and I’m very committed to being a part of that.