Sunday, April 18, 2010

The "so what" question

Walter Russell Mead, an Episcopalian, addresses the question "Where Did The Mainline Go Wrong?" One of the reasons he gives seems to me the most fundamental reason any church will fail, whether mainline or evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, or any other Christian permutation.
.... 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 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. .... [more]
Faith Matters: Where Did The Mainline Go Wrong? - Walter Russell Mead's Blog - The American Interest