Tag Archives: mainline

The Pew Forum Obituary & the Good News of Powerlessness

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord ActonPewForum

 “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)

Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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…

Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250.  Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.
Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250. Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

1. Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources 2008), 47.

2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.

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Nuclear Joy

I recently completed Signs Amid the Rubble and I cannot recommend it enough.  The lectures within – ranging from the 1940’s to the mid-1990’s – contain insights that are just as fresh today as when they were written.  The very last lecture in the book, given at Salvador, Brazil to a missionary conference, struck home with me.  He concludes with the following observation:

“I find it strange that conferences about mission and evangelism are often pervaded…by a kind of anxiety and guilt – as though this were a program that we have a responsibility to carry out and about which we’ve no been very successful.  Isn’t it remarkable that according to the New Testament the whole thing begins with an enormous explosion of joy?  The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God!  It seems to me, the resurrection of Jesus was a kind of nuclear explosion which sent out a radioactive cloud, not lethal but life-giving, and that the mission of the church is simply the continuing communication of that joy – joy in the Lord.”

I think anyone who has been a part of discussion within Mainline Protestantism can relate to the anxiety and guilt that Newbigin names which, in my experience, often do reign in clergy gatherings and conferences.  We sometimes talk as if all of this is up to us, and bearing God’s message is a task to complete rather than good news to share.

Instead, as the great Bishop reminds us, the mission of Jesus Christ is one of joy – a kind of radioactive cloud emanating across time and space, in which we participate as witnesses and heralds.  Thanks – and joyful, exuberant praise – be to God.

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 121.

Good Ecumenism, Bad Economics

A group of protestant bishops and other leaders, mostly from the mainline, recently wrote a letter to congress urging them not to make serious tax cuts because of its potential to impact the poor both at home and abroad.

A noble sentiment, to be sure, but is it good economics?  It includes this line:

Discretionary programs that serve the poor and vulnerable are a very small percentage of the budget, and they are not the drivers of the deficits. Unchecked increases in military spending combined with vast tax cuts helped create our country’s financial difficulties and restoring financial soundness requires addressing these root imbalances.

There is no mention of the housing crisis; of the poor stewardship and worship of the almighty dollar and the American dream that led many to purchase homes they couldn’t afford.  Instead, the blame is laid at the doorstep of two things that the left does not like: the military and tax cuts.  Nevermind that the military is a major distributor of aid and assistance to foreign countries (think of the Marines following the Tsunami) and in domestic crises ( the Coast Guard following Katrina, or the National Guard after, well, everything).  And nevermind that tax cuts free up capital to be used for job creation – which is precisely the medicine needed to treat poverty.

The nanny state is untenable.  I think I could make a case that it is un-Christian, too. In his “Choruses from The Rock” T.S. Eliot wrote,

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

The transfer of moral agency away from the individual to the state is a serious problem in modernity.  By and large, the Church has bought into this notion that the state can do our morality for us.  There was a time when it was the duty of the churches to build hospitals, care for the outcast, and feed the hungry.  After Marx, we are apt to worship the state and look to it to do all our ministry for us.

More and more I think that we get the politics we deserve by not doing our job in the social sphere.  If Britain is any example, the state is evolving into a beast too hungry to satiate, and we want to keep feeding it.  All the social welfare programs in the world will not best the original program of social justice: Christ working the world through his Church.

Let us lament that the state still has anyone left to help.  If Christians in America were doing our jobs, the state would have much less room to step in.

Still that increasing a few taxes and cutting military spending will solve things?  Check this out:

P.S. I only found out about this letter because I am on the mailing list of the IRD.  I don’t like the IRD; I think they are as obviously in the pocket of the right wing as this letter indicates our church leaders are in the pocket of the left wing.  But I stay on their mailing list because it’s the only way I find out about crazy things like this that my church does.  A necessary evil, I suppose.