A Dying Church?


What Now? (2)

                                The Product (A)                                

There are hymns I refuse to sing because of their theology.  It surprises some people when I tell them this.  They tell me that when they sing hymns they aren’t paying attention to the words at all, but to the melody and tempo instead.  The hymns they like are the ones that leave them feeling a certain way.   And so the world goes.  To borrow Jane Austin’s categories, it’s either sense or sensibility.

 We Disciples tend to be a sensible lot.  The story is told of a cousin of Alexander Campbell’s who moved onto the family estate in Bethany for a while.   He was a fiddle player who liked to sit on the porch to play.  But because the house faced the road that everyone who came and went from town had to use, Alexander Campbell finally had to insist that his cousin only play his fiddle in the barn on the back of the property where people couldn’t see or hear him.  Alexander Campbell was concerned that the passionate strains of the music his cousin was playing might give the wrong impression to those who passed by the house.  He wanted there to be no mistaking the fact that they were a people of sensibility and not sense!

 In my last post I observed that church these days consists of three parts: packaging, a product and marketing.  There is an assumption, widely-held and likely true, that the packaging must be attractive if the product it contains is going to get a look.   But in acknowledging this, it is also important to say out loud that the packaging is never the point.  It’s the proverbial lipstick on a pig.  You can make the pig prettier, but it’s still the pig that counts.  And so, while we can, and probably need to take a good, hard look at our packaging as a church to make sure that people can actually see us, it is finally the product that’s going to have to be good if it’s going to get “bought.”  So how is the “Disciple” pig these days?  And the answer is “not good.”  Denominationally, we are in precipitous decline.  Nobody debates this fact.  What gets debated is the “why?”

 Timothy Tennant, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and the President of Asbury Theological Seminary, recently responded to an editorial that John Buchanan, an ordained Presbyterian minister and the editor of the Christian Century, wrote about the decline of the mainline church. 

Buchanan is clearly unhappy with much of what he sees in today’s growing independent and “mega” churches.  He cites the excessive consumerism and the individualistic narcissism which is rampant in many of these rapidly growing churches.  He reminds us that today’s consumerist culture does not care what denomination you belong to as long as you offer a dynamic youth program, great music and a nursery.  Buchanan attributes the growth of non-denominational churches to “smart marketing” and providing “multiple options.”

And this is a familiar explanation of what’s happened to the mainline church in our lifetime. In fact, it’s the one that I hear offered most often by mainline church leaders.  We’ve been out-packaged, and if we will just get with it, change our packaging, then we’ll get back into the game.  This is essentially what the church growth expert I wrote about in my last posting told me over our lunch, and I know of mainline churches that have bought this argument, changed their packaging, and it remains to be seen what will happen.  But Tennant is buying it.  His explanation of the decline of the mainline church is entirely different –

What Buchanan misses is that the rise and fall of Christian movements is fundamentally not really about denominational loyalty or whether a church has a great music program.  It is far too reductionist to simply say that the mainline churches need to do “smart marketing” or that mega-churches are simply benefiting from a “great American innovation.”  The United Methodist Church has spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting the smart marketing byline:  “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”  But all this “smart marketing” does is underscore the United Methodist disease.  This marketing line says nothing about Jesus Christ or the apostolic faith.  It actually communicates the very blandness which is the problem when a denomination loses its center.  The phrase, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” says nothing about “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”  It says nothing about our great communion with the global church around the world and back through time.  It says nothing about the beauty and power of Jesus Christ.  It affirms, at best, congenial niceness, while carefully avoiding anything about Christian identity.  The phrase, “open hearts, open minds, open doors” could very well have been a sign hanging over a 19th century brothel.  It is the gospel which keeps us connected through history and with our brothers and sisters around the world (catholicity).  It is the gospel which reminds us of the apostolic message (apostolicity) and calls us back to orthodoxy when we are tempted to throw it all away for the latest cultural “mess of pottage.  It is the gospel which “tears down the dividing wall of hostility” and creates a unity which transcends all racial and ethnic barriers (oneness).  It is the gospel which calls us to holiness – both personal and social – at the profoundest level.  One, holy, catholic, apostolic church should be the “sign” written or unwritten over every church in the world.

Tennant argues that the mainline church is in trouble, not because we let our packaging atrophy and got out marketed (which we did!), but rather because we changed our product.  And I agree.  I think this accurately describes what has happened to the Disciples in the last 50 years.  In a book on the prayers and meditations of Mother Teresa, A Gift from God, there was this entry –

There is always the danger that we may become only social workers, or just do the work for the sake of the work.  It is a danger if we forget to whom we are doing it.  Our works are only an expression of our love for Christ.  Our hearts need to be full of love for Him, and since we express that love in action, naturally then the poorest of the poor are the means of expressing our love for God…  A Hindu gentleman said that they and we are doing social work, and the difference between them and us is that they are doing it for something, and we are doing it for Somebody. (42)

Our Christianity as Disciples has always been practical, best expressed in acts of human service to people’s hurts and hopes.  We were feeding the hungry, helping the poor and serving the disadvantaged as a church 100 years ago just as we still are today.  To look at things it would appear that nothing’s changed.  But something has.  100 years ago we did this work because it was a continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ and it gave credibility to our proclamation of the Gospel.  Today we do this work because it is a continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ.  What’s changed is the witness, the way the work is now the end in itself, and not the means to another end, the proclamation of the Gospel.  Our language betrays us.  As Disciples we are constantly being told to “be the gospel” and to “live the gospel.” One of the most popular quotes in the typical Disciple minister’s quiver is St. Francis’ exhortation to “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words.”  And while there is certainly truth in this kind of talk, it is the truth that needs to be spoken to Christians who are good at talking about their Christianity and not embodying it.  It gigs them; it excuses us. 

As Christians who have always been pretty good at embodying our Christianity, but terrible about articulating it, especially to people who aren’t Christians, the truth that we need to hear as Disciples is Mark 16:15 – “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation,” and Acts 8:4 – “Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.”  The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ’s saving death, burial and resurrection. We can’t “be” this Gospel; we can only “preach” this Gospel.  Living Gospel shaped lives, sacrificial and serving, certainly bears witness to the power that this Gospel has had in saving us.  But when we live this life without talking about Jesus Christ, Christianity becomes humanitarianism.   And while there is certainly a nobility to humanitarianism, it is not the same thing as Christianity.  And it appears to me this is the product that so many Disciple churches have shifted to over the last 50 years.  “Be good” and “do good” is what’s preached. “Do more” and “try harder” is what’s practiced.  And at best, Jesus is the example and cheerleader.  But the Gospel is about Jesus Christ being our Savior.  And if this isn’t our product as a church, then I’m not sure that we should have a future.



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One response to “A Dying Church?

  1. Pingback: A Dying Church (Final) | Northway Christian Church Blog

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