Standing In The Gap Of The Real And Perceived
A thoughtful young lady, Carol Howard Merritt, recently tackled an issue very real to her denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PCUSA. She is the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation, and laments that the average age of PCUSA members is over 60 years old. In addition, the PCUSA has lost almost half its membership in the last 50 years. Most other mainline denominations, like the United Methodist Church, have faced similar if somewhat less dramatic declines. With their congregations dying, publicity campaigns like “Open hearts.
Open doors.” haven’t slowed the receding tide. This hemorrhaging is no less than the throes of death for the sustained cultural influence of the historical denominations that defined the moral fabric which undergirded the birth of the United States.
On the other hand, a conservative offshoot of the PCUSA, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), has sextupled its number of congregations and individual members in the last 40 years. Make no mistake; the PCUSA is still much larger, but for how long, and to what effective end? A recent study by the Cooperative Congregation Studies Partnership in conjunction with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research gives a broader and more detailed analysis of these trends in the last decade, and their contributing factors.
As we can see, the problem with the general aging trend of the American Church is not a new issue, and was indeed seeded back in the 1960’s. The largest generation in United States history was coming of age at the intersection of a number of different levels of social upheaval, and it was taking a fresh look at everything with a different set of tools than the previous generation had.
The Boomer generation was looking for the truth, but in a way that resonated with their newfound egalitarian sensibilities. They didn’t relate to 15-foot-tall lecterns, clergy in robes, rituals the meaning of which had been forgotten generations before them, and 200-year-old worship music accompanied by words in 400-year-old English. Or even worse, 1000-year-old Gregorian chant (that’s in Latin, by the way).
The model and aura of the priestly caste worked for millenia because the world on the whole had not changed much in 6000 years before Gutenberg‘s genius, and subsequently, the Industrial Revolution. But by the 1960’s, society around the globe began moving and communicating too fast to sustain those traditions meaningfully. The Boomers‘ restlessness was simply a reflection of that reality. And this was all before the Internet.
Mainstream demoninational leaders had a choice in confronting the changing social landscape. They could change their method, or they could change their message. By choosing the latter almost unanimously, these overgrown acolytes abandoned both the group they needed, the Boomers who demanded a new delivery paradigm, and the group they had, orthodox Christians who would not attend a church committed to abandoning the simple gospel that had represented their faith for centuries.
This explains in large part why the Southern Baptist Convention is today the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, while many other mainstream denominations have experienced a consistent, across-the-board net loss of tens of millions of congregants over the last half century. This pattern will continue as long as these denominations preach the mantra of understanding the Bible as a flawed mythology demonstrating some greater truths, when the common devout Christian out there rightfully clings to a historical and solidly defensible view of the Bible as the singular, trustworthy revelation of God, written through His servants, and accurately relating history, God’s offer of redemption for the sins of mankind, and His promise to make all things new.
And just in case you’re wondering, I’m not a Southern Baptist.
At the end of the day, it is the power of God that saves, and that power will not manifest itself in the empty, echoing halls of pompous unbelief. God’s Word is offered on His terms, not ours. His gospel is a freely offered but non-negotiable instrument of His grace. It is a catered meal, not a smörgåsbord. No substitutions, please.
To those who recognize at this point that their exalted understanding of the finer nuances of theological metaphysics and higher criticism is clearly just too sophisticated for the likes of me, I have some disappointing news. God is too sophisticated for you. He has made His gospel is so simple that your ego can’t believe He didn’t consult you before crafting it, and your hard heart can’t accept that. You may continue to argue for man’s right to define God until the ivory tower is all you have left, and the fires of Hell engulf it.
But it would nice if you’d stop trying to convince the rest of us to join you. Why? Because the Bible presents God’s righteousness, design, justice, mercy, grace, and life. You present different combinations of lawlessness, meaninglessness, renewed calls to rebuild the Tower of Babel, chance, and death. Your god is a blind roll of the dice. My God owns the casino. How would you rather play, as a walk-in customer, or an heir of the House? It’s your choice entirely, of course. You place your bets, and I’ll place mine.