“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” -James 4:10 (NRSV)
If you’ve ever been to a Hospice House, you know that there is such a thing as holy dying. Even in a film absurd enough to suggest that Tom Cruise could be a samurai, the viewer encountered the idea of a “good death.” As Christians, death and resurrection are at the very heart of our faith. Thus it is surprising to see the defensiveness, anger, fear, and finger-pointing among Christians that have accompanied the release of the recent Pew Forum
obituary report sounding the death knell for most forms of Christianity in the US. Evangelicals point to the attitudes and theologies of liberal Christians. Liberal/Progressive Christians point to the intolerance and judgmentalism of conservatives. Decline is everyone else’s fault. And we’re pissed.
The Pew results are neither surprising nor encouraging, but I want to suggest they need not cause us to despair, either. Most forms of Christianity are suffering because we have so accommodated to American culture (regardless of which side of the culture war battle lines one prefers) that we no longer offer a compelling alternative that is more interesting than a football game, yard sale, or an extra hour of sleep. To make matters worse, many of the most ‘successful’ churches have bucked this trend not by offering a faithful alternative, but by doubling down and out-MTVing MTV. Their end is destruction.
Instead, perhaps what we are experiencing is a necessary winnowing. Elaine Heath has suggested the church is going through a “dark night of the soul,” a period of spiritual struggle from which we will emerge more vital and faithful. I can’t help but think that the decline of Mainline Protestantism is overall a good thing. The “Christian Century” was marked by the worst atrocities and wars humanity has ever concocted. We deserve to lose our prominence. Maybe if we can embrace our newfound irrelevance, as my friend Evan suggests, we might find the only renewal worth having.
My own United Methodist tribe is marked by a sad compromise with the world that defines our history even today. Scott Kisker reflects on the compromise that led early Methodists to abandon their anti-slavery stance in a devil’s bargain to win the frontier (and eventually become the “most successful” church in the newly united US):
“When Euro-Methodists abandoned some of our brothers and sisters to accept a place at America’s table, we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power that went with the position to do good. We didn’t notice we were being changed by the power. We became worldly, not holy.” (1)
The story of American Methodism is mimicked heavily in US Protestantism more broadly; this is so whether we consider the Moral Majority, “Cross & Flag” triumphalism of the 1980’s or the gradual succumbing of denominations like the UCC to forms of liberal Religious Leftism that mirrored and thus could not critique politically compromised evangelicalism. They were both Constantinian in approach: seeking power and influence on the world’s terms in the guise of the gospel. Like Kisker notes in reference to Methodism, “we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power” without being co-opted by it. Lord Acton’s dictum remains true for all who are not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
That’s why the Pew Forum report gives me hope. In our newfound (and uncomfortable) powerlessness, we just might recover the church of the apostles. Our failure on the world’s terms just might lead to success on God’s terms. Isn’t the direction of the gospel the story of downward mobility? Henri Nouwen thus reflects:
“The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.” (2)
Jesus once told Peter (John 21:18) that when he was older, he would be taken where he did not want to go (this indicated Peter’s death by crucifixion, in imitation of Jesus).
Likewise, the church in North America is being led where it does not wish to go.
Jesus, though, has walked this lonesome valley before us. We journey towards a cross.
But after the cross…
1. Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources 2008), 47.
2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.