Clergy are in denial over Mother Church’s deathly disease
By Rev. Jack Van EnsSpecial to the DailyMother’s on life support, but her children react as if the sickness shrinking her body isn’t lethal. That’s the diagnosis church growth voiced by experts who gathered in early April at the Awakening America conference in Northampton, Mass.I’m using “mother” in a metaphorical sense, of course, to describe the Christian church that nurtures believers. Ancient Church fathers when writing often used this literary symbol. Like a mother nursing her child, the church gives sustenance to believers who feed on God’s word in the Bible.At the Awakening America conference, I portrayed the colonial revivalist Jonathan Edwards before 125 Pentecostal, Baptist and other national evangelical leaders. Church growth consultant David T. Olson, who wrote “The American Church in Crisis,” pointed out how churches avoid bad news about slumping worship attendance. TV hypes megachurches flourishing in former athletic arenas. Such box-store churches are proliferating in the U.S. Stunning growth among these houses of worship looking like Wal-Marts masks a grim reality. Mom-and-pop churches dotting the American landscape are retrenching.Contrary to rosy portraits of huge auditoriums crammed with worshippers, Olson paints a far drearier picture.”In reality the church in America is not booming. It is in crisis. On any given Sunday, the vast majority of Americans are absent from church. Even more troublesome, as the American population continues to grow, the church falls further and further behind. If trends continue, by 2050 the percentages of Americans attending church will be half the 1990 figure.”The U.S. Presbyterian Church, for instance, a mainline denomination rooted in the Colonial era, has slumped in membership, averaging an annual loss of 30,000 members since the mid-1960s. Too many of its existing churches are on life-support. Their cultural influence has waned as membership rolls gets smaller. This Presbyterian denomination, Olson predicts, “needs to plant 10 times as many churches as they currently do. Their established churches are declining by 30,000 attendees per year, and their new churches add fewer than 2,500 each year. Given the lack of church planting in most mainline denominations, church attendance will continue to decrease.”What’s Mother Church to do when her strength ebbs? The characters I portray in Christian ministry, Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Jefferson, dispense Geritol for Mother Church’s soul. Though different fundamentally in beliefs about Jesus, these leaders show a bent of mind, a shape of spirit that ailing churches desperately need. Edwards and Jefferson habitually tried what’s new rather than remold the old. They diligently executed Jesus’ game plan. In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus urges his followers to remember the lesson that old and new wineskins teach.”No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst its skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins,” Mark 2:22. Biblical people took goat hides, tied them at neck and feet and poured fermenting wine into them. They left a small hole for fermenting gasses to escape. Wineskins used too long for storage cracked from old age. Wine seeped from them. The elasticity of the new wineskins kept fermenting wine from leaking. Jonathan Edwards searched for what’s new lurking in venerable religious traditions. Power brokers in Boston churches wanted him to toe their doctrinal line. They suspected Edwards diverged from what their ecclesiastical rulebooks stipulated. Edwards didn’t reflect the Boston clergy’s staid theology. Their mentality appeared to Edwards as bland as their stand-pat beliefs about how to operate a church. Such ecclesiastical guardians of orthodoxy E.M. Forster centuries later described in “Aspects of the Novel” as “flat characters.” They were two-dimensional, without any surprises within. Their predictable natures were tied to what has been tried, even if it didn’t work.Edwards represented what emerged as “New-School Presbyterians.” These colonial Christians sponsored revivals, learned what works from Christians not of their stripe, did mission work crossing denominational boundaries, showed zeal for reform and believed their Calvinist heritage was far richer than any particular version of it.Using Wall Street parlance, Edwards and Jefferson tolerated risk to such a high degree that they operated like political hedge-fund managers rather than playing it close to the vest as index-fund trackers habitually do. Hedge-fund managers use unconventional investments to make big money. They take big risks and may lose big, too. Index traders play it safe, following the undulating stock market’s graph.”It’s part of the American character,” Jefferson wrote his daughter Patsy, “to consider nothing as desperate, to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance.” To “contrive” in our speech infers artificially manipulating ideas. For Jefferson, to “contrive” meant to experiment, to go for broke, to risk, to reinvent. He and Madison discussed whether it was wise for every generation to write its own Constitution. Jefferson supported this revolutionary idea. He wanted national leadership to learn from the past but not slavishly venerate it. These role models challenge us to reach for the new. Sure, it’s a gamble. But it beats dying with the old game plans few follow and most reject.The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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