“I Love to Tell the Story”

A Summer in the Psalms

There has been a fascinating exchange in the blogosphere as of late. On Tuesday, July 23, Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times published an article: “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” In it she examined the flurry of recent scholarship on the state of “Mainline” Protestant Christianity.

Sometimes called the “eight sisters,” the “Mainline” Protestant American Churches are most often identified as the (1) United Methodist Church (UMC), (2) the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), (3) the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), (4) the Episcopal Church, (5) the American Baptist Churches, (6) the United Church of Christ (Congregationalist), (7) the Disciples of Christ, and (8) the Reformed Church in America. At one time these “eight sisters” were the belles of the ball in American religious life, but in the second half of the 20th century, they all, without exception, fell on hard times. Our loss of membership, economic resources and cultural clout across the board have led some to describe us now as the “Sidelined” Protestant American Churches rather than the “Mainline.”

Lots of work has been done through the years about what happened to us, how this “sidelining” took place. There’s no “news” in any of this. Where there’s “news” is in the question of the “vitality” of the version of Christianity that the “Mainline” Protestant American Churches have historically championed. There is at least the suggestion that the “rumors of our death” have been “greatly exaggerated.”

Now, before getting too excited about the prospects of our imminent institutional resurgence, let’s be sure that we understand what’s being asserted by the scholars. John Turner in his blog “The Mourner’s Bench” at http://www.patheos.com summarizes rather nicely what the recent research is reporting –

Observers of American religion have been too obsessed with institutional strength at the cost of ignoring culture… Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.”

Christian Smith’s identification of “Moral Therapeutic Deism” as the “Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith” of most of the kids who are raised in church these days (See Christian Smith – “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith” @ http://www.ptsem.edu), and the statistical explosion of people in American society who self-identify as being “spiritual but not religious” is the evidence that Mainline Protestant Christianity, while losing the game of institutional strength has nevertheless carried the day in culture. The faith and values of Mainline Protestant Christianity aren’t filling many pews these days, but its traditional values of tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness and social activism have carried the cultural day. We may be dying as a religious institution, but our values will live on in the larger culture. As Schuessler in her article last week in the New York Times put it, “Liberals may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance as the dominant American creed.”

Roger Olson, a theologian at Truett Seminary down in Waco at Baylor wrote a response to all of this in his blog last week (“Is there Vitality in ‘Mainline Religion?’” – July 24, 2013 – http://www.patheos.com). It is the best response to it that I have come across. Uniquely positioned as an Evangelical (he teaches at an Evangelical – Southern Baptist – Seminary) in a Mainline Protestant denomination (his ministerial standing is with the American Baptist church) Dr. Olson lives on the boundary. After meandering through a helpful review of the conditions and causes of the decline of Mainline Protestant Christianity in America, Dr. Olson offered us some advice –

So what are my prescriptions for revitalizing old-line Protestantism? First, I suggest they rediscover “generous orthodoxy.” (Start by) affirming basic, historic, broadly orthodox Christian doctrines such as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, the Trinity and salvation by grace alone through faith. Second, I suggest they rediscover and encourage living Christian spiritual experiences—conversion-regeneration by means of personal repentance and personal faith in Jesus Christ, sanctification through discipleship including infillings of the Holy Spirit, devotional life using Scripture and classical devotional literature. Third, I suggest they discover blended worship with lively singing, worship teams and bands, and decrease their commitments to high liturgical worship as their sole style of worship. Fourth, I suggest they rediscover the supernatural—belief in and experience of God actually answering prayers in ways beyond natural explanation—and encourage people to share their stories of that without embarrassment. None of this requires any diminution of peace and justice activism; it just requires demoting peace and justice witness and activism from the be-all and end-all to one aspect of Christianity.

In other words, what Dr. Olson advises churches like ours to do is to remember. Remember that there was once something powerful enough to convince a group of settled believers to leave their existing religious strictures and structures in order to align themselves around a new spiritual center of gravity and to be carried to a new place by its momentum. And that new perspective that they discovered proved compelling enough to fuel a movement that for at least a season was the fastest growing religious communion in the United States of America. There was vitality to their vision of Christianity which galvanized a movement. So, what was it? And the fact that we don’t know the answer to that question, or, that the answer that we offer is wrong, having nothing to do with our founders’ visions, is telling.

I was thinking about all of this last Sunday morning when in worship our attention as a community of faith was directed to the Psalms of Remembrance – Psalm 105-106. These are Psalms of History, Psalms that tell the story of God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people in such a way that later generations, the spiritual descendants of those first believers, have a way of making that “old, old story” their very own. As John Macquarrie observed –

A community of faith… usually traces its history back to what may be called a “classic” or “primordial” revelation. This classic revelation, a definitive disclosive experience of the holy granted to the founder or founders of a community, becomes as it were the paradigm for experiences of the holy in that community. A revelation that has the power to found a community of faith becomes fruitful in that community, and is, so to speak, repeated or re-enacted in the experience of the community, thus becoming normative for the experience of the community. (“Formative Revelation” in Leon Morris’ I Believe in Revelation – Eerdmans – 1976 – p.p. 68-69)

Or, as Stanley Hauerwas recently told a class of his ministerial students at Duke Divinity School, “the future of the church is found in doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday,” so long as the “same thing” that the church is doing week in and week out is “proclaiming the Gospel, forgiving sins and attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Concluding his article about Stanley Hauerwas’  “strange” counsel to the Mainline Protestant Church in its precipitous numerical decline, Anthony Baker, the professor of Theology down at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, wrote –

If Christians can learn, week after week, to read the story of Jesus of Nazareth – to love what we read, to be loved by what we read – then surely the future of the church would look at bit more hopeful. (www.christianitytoday.com)

This is the promise that the spiritual discipline of remembering that Psalms 105 and 106 teach holds for us. It’s not just a matter of filling our heads with information that could prove useful in a game of trivial pursuit. It’s a matter of anchoring our hearts in the reality that gives us our identity, our purpose and our direction. It’s all about knowing the old, old story, loving the old, old story, and being loved by the old, old story in turn.   DBS+




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