Thoughts on the Future of Christianity After a Conversation with the Founder of the Alban Institute
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to have lunch with the
, known to many of you as the creator of the Alban Institute. A think tank operation, funded largely over the last fifty years with grants from major foundations, the Alban Institute has studied and made recommendations on every aspect of congregational life imaginable. For the benefit of those who might not be familiar with its activities, the Alban Institute was the source of such almost universally accepted practices today as setting congregations on the path of undergoing a self-study and creating a parish profile prior to beginning the search for a new pastor. That process, not coincidentally, has also created the position of “Interim Pastor,” a role deemed as necessary to making that long, reflective search process viable. Now retired, Dr. Mead was surely one of the 20th century’s great primary ecclesiastical innovators and Christian leaders. So enormous is his reputation and so solid has his knowledge of church life been that I listened to his words with care and gave them the attention that they merit.
On that day, he discussed with me the economic crisis in which institutional Christianity is living today. The financial problems facing the Christian Church, he asserted, “are far more than just a reaction to the current economic turndown.” It is, he believes, “a reflection of something quite systemic.” To make his point, he used the analogy of a rising and receding tide. He referred to the 20 years following World War II (1945-1965) as a time in which a rising tide of interest in religion had carried all churches into a sense of well-being. In those two decades the churches followed the culture’s rush to suburbia with the building of huge numbers of suburban structures which almost immediately were filled with people and became going concerns. That changed about 1965, he added, and between 1965 and 1975, the tide began to recede, so slowly at first that it was not discernable, but picking up speed as the years flowed by. Religious interest has clearly declined and church attendance is no longer the “thing to do.”
While he did not go into the causes of this, some of them are obvious. There were great tensions inside the church brought about by the civil rights movement as ecclesiastical racism was brought to the surface. Recall that Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a
Birmingham Jail” ( http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html ) was addressed to the leaders of Alabama’s Christian community. There was also the conflict that rocked this nation over the Vietnam War, setting the generations against each other and causing patriotism to cease being a virtue for many. Then there was the feminist movement that struggled against many church-inspired restrictions on women and opened doors to sexual freedom. Next came the battle for justice in regard to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in both church and society. Only recently has that battle ended in a clear victory for gay rights.
In each of these social transformations institutional Christianity was generally on the losing side. The signs of those losses are present everywhere one looks in our society today and the Christian Church has been called on to adjust to these new realities. By being on the wrong side of history and then by exhausting its resources in losing battles, the credibility of the Christian Church suffered a huge setback. Christians used quotations from the scriptures to under gird their dying prejudices and in the process served to call the integrity of these scriptures into question, especially among the members of the rising generation. The fact that international leaders from the Pope, who has not yet addressed with honesty or integrity the scandal of abusive behavior on the part of the ordained and who still calls homosexuality “deviant” behavior, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who still believes Christian unity is a higher virtue than truth or justice, constitute other symptoms of our time that illustrate our inability to enter the future or to face reality.
Neither Dr. Mead nor I, however, believe that these things alone, as gripping as they are, are sufficient to account for the rapid demise of organized religion in our time. There is clearly something more. In denomination after denomination, including every branch of Christendom the mood of the Christian Church today is that of contraction, merging and the closing of congregations. Even the fundamentalist churches, particularly in the South, which appeared to counter this receding tide and the mega-churches built significantly on the personalities of their charismatic clergy, appear now to have reached their limits of expansion. Many of them splinter over internal control issues or seem not to be able to survive the departure of their founder.
Following this conversation with Dr. Mead I began to pull together thoughts that I have had for some time, but they never seemed to form a consistent pattern. Perhaps, after this conversation, they did. At least I want to state them and to invite others to react to these possibilities. The reason I believe Christianity is in a steep decline is that it cannot bring itself to face self-consciously the fact that the presuppositions on which our faith story was erected in the past are today no longer self-evidently true or even believable.
To say it boldly, there is no God who lives above the sky and is ready to come to our aid, as most of the language of prayer assumes to be a reality. That God could be imagined only
when we believed that the earth was the center of a three-tiered universe and that God not only watched over and judged the world from a heavenly throne above the sky, but also intervened regularly to answer our prayers or to assert the divine will. To please this heavenly parent and ultimate judge was what we thought would assure our eternal destiny. This concept of God began to die with the revolution in thought started by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo in
the 16th and 17th centuries, but it has grown as we have become citizens of a space age and are now beginning to embrace the enormity of the size of the universe. Our planet Earth is not only not the center of the universe, it is not even the center of our galaxy that includes some 200 billion other stars, most of which are bigger than our star that we call the sun.
This God, traditionally defined as supernatural in power, we assumed was capable of miracles in a wide variety of circumstances. When Isaac Newton began to publish his work in the latter years of the 17th century, introducing us to natural law and to cause and effect, both miracle and magic were squeezed out of our consciousness. Elie Wiesel’s book NIGHT on his experience in the Holocaust was the most powerful articulation of how this idea of God died. The God of the Bible, who had intervened in human history in the cause of freedom by sending plagues upon the Egyptians and by splitting the Red Sea to enable “the chosen people” to escape from slavery at the time of the Exodus, was nowhere to be found when this God was so desperately needed to free “the chosen people” from death in the prison camps of Nazi Germany in the 20th century. Belief in such an intervening God became simply no longer credible.
Next, the entire way we tell the Jesus story was challenged and, though many Christians cannot admit it, actually set aside as no longer believable by the work of Charles Darwin. The primary Christian myth assumes an original perfect creation from which human life has somehow fallen. That idea makes no sense when we embrace the fact that we have actually evolved over billions of years from single cell organisms to complex self-conscious creatures. There was no fall from an original perfection since there was no original perfection. The concept of “original sin” is largely regarded as nonsense today. Yet the fall from which Jesus has rescued us is the way we continue to tell the Jesus story. Our churches and clergy still parrot that incredibly negative Christian idea that we have been “saved by the blood of Christ.” Protestants still shout their guilt-producing mantra “Jesus died for my sins,” and Catholics still refer to “the sacrifice of the Mass” as reenacting the moment when salvation was procured. These concepts fill our hymns, our liturgies and our sermons despite the fact that they make no sense outside the parameters of the pre-suppositions that are culturally no longer believed. How can one be saved if one has not fallen? How can one be restored to a status that one has never possessed? How can God be worshiped if this God requires the death of the divine son in order to have our sins forgiven? If there is no payoff, no benefit to be gained from faithful worship and righteous living, then many ask today “why bother?” These are the things the Christian Church is up against today in this post-Christian age. None of them will be solved by inviting people to listen once again to the “old, old story” or by joining in the singing of “The Old Rugged Cross.”
The problems facing institutional Christianity today in the Western world cannot be addressed by tinkering around the edges of our theological formularies or structures. As important as they have been making good parish profiles will not do it nor will even making wise choices in the selection of our clergy. We are not today in a temporary status of watching the tide go out with confidence that in time the tide will come back in . We are rather living through a cataclysmic transition from the presuppositions by which we once lived and having no idea how to tell our faith story in terms of the emerging world view for which our religion of yesterday has no relevance. So churches are dying, vast anger, rising out of cultural depression at the loss of yesterday’s meaning and unstoppable changes, are now our daily bread.
The consensus of the past is breaking up. The consensus of the future has not yet been formed. We live in interesting times and dangerous times also. Political shell games and pious rhetoric will no longer suffice.
Before we can move to address these issues we must understand them. I see little present indication that either church leaders or political leaders understand the depth of the problem we face. Time alone will tell, but in the meantime doing church business as usual or practicing politics as usual is a prescription not only for disaster, but for extinction.
~John Shelby Spong