With Head and Heart, Mainline Edition

Diana Butler Bass writes a nice rebuttal to Ross Douthat’s NYTimes editorial “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”

(Typically I find Douthat’s articles to be rife with either silliness or reactionary scolding, so I won’t link him here.)

A better question, Bass says, is “Can liberal churches save Christianity?” The story of declining liberal denominations and booming conservative evangelical churches gets a lot of press, but as it turns out, that story probably isn’t true. Americans distrust organized religion in general, and most churches (with the exception of scattered, booming megachurches) are having a hard time retaining membership, let alone growing.

Bass rightly points out that the challenge for liberal Mainliners is to regain the heart of their tradition–a point which deserves further elaboration.

Further elaboration: It’s not really a unique challenge. A church’s relevancy (regardless of historical circumstance) is largely a function of its ability to strike the right balance between head and heart. It seems to me that mainliners suffer from an inability to find their heart, which can be credited to a number of factors.

Maybe the most obvious reason why mainliners have a hard time retaining membership is that most people no longer go to church out of social obligation. We could speculate as to the reasons for that, or talk about whether or not it’s a good thing, but the more important point is that there probably isn’t any good reason to think the trend will reverse itself. Whereas previously churches could expect a certain level of attendance regardless of whether or not folks found the life of the church to be engaging, that’s no longer the case. Something has to draw people in, catch their attention, and keep them there. The same old, same old really isn’t a viable option.

We know that, though. So we’ve changed. Mostly, we’ve changed our thinking, which is good because it’s never a good idea for church leaders to resist basic facets of reality. An extreme example: you wouldn’t want to insist that the Old Testament story in which the sun stops moving across the sky is a matter of literal, historical fact. That would be saying that, for a time, the universe stopped spinning, that the laws of physics happened to turn off for just a little while. Most high school educated Americans would balk at that. At least, I really, really hope that most of them would balk at it.

Same goes for attitudes towards our GLBTQI brothers and sisters. Attitudes towards gender and sexual orientation are rapidly changing, and the scientific literature overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that same-gender (or multiple-gender) attraction is wired into a person in the same way as opposite-gender attraction. Maybe it’s the case that taking stands on GLBTQI equality will drive conservatives away from the church, but this is quickly becoming a right-side-of-history argument. My sincere hope is that, in 40 or 50 years, opponents of gay rights will be viewed in the same light as a current day pastor who stepped out to give his opinion on The Negro Problem.

Politics are probably a different story than social issues. It would be foolish to say “this is definitely the direction in which churches must head politically if they wish to survive.” What’s worth noting is that religion and politics mixing isn’t a new thing. In fact, it’s probably unavoidable. The real threat to the soul of a church isn’t political engagement but partisan hackery. If congregants sense that you’re acting as a GOP or DNC puppet, then they’re probably right to run for the hills. Not only that, but rigid partisan alignments take away people of faith’s capacity to actually make a difference politically. Partisan believers are hopelessly constrained by their chosen party’s interests.

Any attempt by Douthat (or anyone else) to pin declining church membership on political sensibilities probably doesn’t carry much water.

But so anyway, there’s this tacit assumption among a lot of mainline churches that they ought to be drawing new membership by the boatload simply by virtue of being liberal socially or theologically. They’ve got the thinking right, so where are all of the people?

Somewhere that speaks to their heart, probably. They’re off doing something, maybe church or maybe not, that makes them feel that they’re having a real worshipful/religious/spiritual/whatever-you’d-like-to-call-it experience. I don’t mean to say that every church should turn their worship service into a rock concert with full light show accompaniment. That would be a mistake because the issue isn’t a certain type of liturgical expression, per se. There’s no liturgical golden bullet that’s bound to make everyone happy. What I mean to say is that the vitality and worshipfulness of a service isn’t dependent on the structure and forms of the liturgy. Switching up instruments won’t raise a church that’s spiritually dead from the grave. Spiritual vitality comes from personal warmth and conviction, only later finding expression in particular forms of worship.

The real challenge for liberal churches, as Bass alludes to, is to find their heart again. The problem is, as one of my classmates recently pointed out, that “many are chilled but few are frozen.” The best way for mainliners to grow their churches is to get back on good terms with the symbolic and emotional aspects of their faith. It’d go a long way if we stopped asking questions like “which parts of the Bible are historical?” in favor of questions like “what does this mean?”and “what does this demand of me?”


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