There has been much comment on a recent article in the Globe and Mail about the collapse of the “liberal” church. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/the-collapse-of-the-liberal-church/article4443228/.) In the article, columnist Margaret Wente especially calls the United Church to task. Our Moderator, Mardi Tindal, has offered a response to the letter (http://www.united-church.ca/communications/news/moderator/120730.) I offer here not a formal response, but some thoughts (actually a lot of thoughts; maybe even too many!) about the current situation we find ourselves in. I've cobbled and edited this together from a number of different forums in which I've discussed the article: Facebook, Wonder Cafe and in replying to some e-mails I've received from parishioners about it. This is my way of organizing all my thoughts together.
I should say first that I no longer use the terms "liberal" and "conservative" (or at least I avoid using them to the best of my ability) because they don't really mean anything - or, more to the point, they mean different things to different people. In this post I will use the terms now and then for the sake of convenience, but basically I think of myself as a follower of Christ. That's generally how I describe myself. On some issues I'd be considered "liberal" and on others I'd be considered "conservative." I think getting caught up in that liberal/conservative debate has been a bad thing for the church because basically all we've done is given ourselves licence to demonize "the other side" - not that everyone does that, but in general terms. It's hardly the ministry of reconciliation that Paul speaks of. So the title of Wente's article is problematic to me, because it strikes me as an attempt by a conservative commentator (which Wente is) to demonize the liberal church. Not that she doesn't have some good points. I can also make a critique of the “liberal” church.
Too often, the "liberal" church has a tendency to become obsessed with social or political causes. There's nothing wrong with that in a sense - many of these issues do have a spiritual dimension to them, but the real problem is that the gospel is meant to be relational, not political. Rarely do you see Jesus (or even the prophets) get strictly political, and when they do say things that touch on the political or social situation in society, it's usually still in a relational sense. The real issue seems to be to build relationship; to reconcile people; to stand with the outcast or oppressed or marginalized in a hands on practical way, rather than an abstract, policy way. That's best done on a one to one, local community basis. When we try to do more than that it seems to me that the church is trying to hang on to the last vestiges of christendom by pretending that we have the power, influence or even the right to insert ourselves into bigger political issues - in spite of the fact that Jesus insisted that his Kingdom was not of this world (ie, it was spiritual and not political.)
In any event, the title of the article aside, Wente does note that the decline is also beginning in the more conservative and evangelical churches as well, although it may not have reached the point of a “collapse” in those denominations yet. I would suggest (as I inferred above) that it's not really the church (liberal or conservative) that's collapsing - it's christendom that's collapsing. Some will see that as splitting hairs, but it's not. The church was around before christendom, and the church will be around after christendom. The church was expanded unnaturally by the rise of christendom, which saw people come into the church for a variety of social, political, cultural and even materialistic reasons; reasons which had little or nothing to do with God or faith. And in many other ways, the christendom that's existed for about 1500 years (and that's now rapidly collapsing before our very eyes) has done us great harm. Basically, "christendom" refers to the period in history in which the church functioned as a temporal, secular power as well as a spiritual community. The problems that brought about are too numerous to mention, but one of the most basic is that by becoming a temporal, secular power we stopped standing with the outcast and became insiders. By gaining power we also succumbed too often and too easily to the danger of abusing power; the temptation to claim and even demand privileges. It was in our vested interest to support the status quo because we became a part of the status quo. Ultimately it means that Marx was absolutely correct when he said that religion had become the opiate of the masses. The job of the church (protecting its own interests) had become simply keeping the people happy in their misery.
Christendom has been collapsing for a while now. Most would see the collapse beginning in the mid-60's. It certainly started collapsing before that, but that's when it became clearly visible. Why then? Think about the 60's. It was the era of rebellion against all authority figures: the government, the police, the military - and the church. We got lumped in with the authority figures, because that's what we had become. Here was the origin of the “spiritual but not religious” movement. “We want God, but not the church.” The “Jesus movement” sprang up – because people (especially younger people) no longer saw the established, institutional church as having much to do with Jesus, who regularly criticized the religious authorities.
There are still a few vestiges of christendom left in the world. Most obvious would be that the Roman Catholic Church still functions as a temporal power, with the Vatican treated as an independent country which engages in diplomatic activities with other nation states as an equal partner rather than as merely the headquarters for an international church. Here in Canada, we have things like property tax exemptions, charitable status, etc. Another problem with christendom is that as the church became and functioned as a temporal power it also became tamed by and dependent on the temporal powers. How would the church be affected by loss of the property tax exemption, for example? And yet, given that Jesus said that his Kingdom was not of this world, by what right do we claim and expect the support of the temporal power?
Times are very tough for the church in general right now. The church will survive, of course, but probably less influential and much smaller as things evolve. One thing Wente commented on that was bang on is the problem of too many buildings. This is especially problematic in the United Church. One reason we have way too many buildings is because in some cases Methodist and Presbyterian churches that were literally a stone's throw from each other agreed to union, but wouldn't unite their congregations. Now they sit a third or half full, a block or two away from each other in some communities (I've seen such cases) but they still won't merge.
Another problem is that we've forgotten how to evangelize, because we didn't have to evangelize. The reality of christendom meant that we always had a steady "supply" of people in the church without really having to work at it. Today, liberal and progressive churches think that jumping on board with “causes” is evangelism, conservatives and fundamentalists think that banging people over the head with threats of hell is evangelism. The truth is that neither stategy works very well. We have to rediscover that evangelism is done face to face, person to person, in loving relationship - often with those whom we don't perceive as especially lovable, because those are the people Jesus reached out to most often. That relational aspect of the gospel has been largely lost. The church stands for either "justice" or "salvation" but too often forgets the real people behind either concept. We think that we're going to "save" the church through one or the other of those emphases. But we won't. The church's salvation, it seems to me, is to be found - yes - only in God, and only by discerning God's call to us - which is neither "justice" nor "salvation" but is rather the building of relationship with real people - especially with the outcast, the marginalized, the oppressed (whom we often tend to see as causes rather than people.) I'm not saying that the church shouldn't stand for either "justice" or "salvation." Neither am I suggesting that it's an either/or proposition between “justice” and “salvation.” I think we need to stand for both justice AND salvation, but I am saying that our greatest work is the offering of community and relationship - especially in a society which has huge challenges to confront in trying to build meaningful community and relationship.
Another of our problems is that we fear death (as a church, I mean.) We see that displayed all the time. Primarily it's demonstrated by the solution to every challenge the church faces - "cut the budget!" Cutting the budget is a short term solution that really only ensures a long, slow and increasingly painful death for a congregation. Maybe we should willingly risk death by using the resources we have left to do glorious ministry. Then if we did die, we'd go out with a bang rather than a whimper, or, who knows, maybe by doing that we'd actually discover real life; maybe even resurrection. But most churches are afraid to die in spite of the fact that they profess to follow a Lord who willingly died without fighting for his life, and so they choose to drag out their death throes as long as they possibly can - so they cut their budgets over and over again and become a shell of what they should be; they become little more than fund-raising organizations dedicated mostly to keeping the doors open. I've seen such churches. They have little life; they merely exist for the sake of existing. Or, sometimes, we seem to be full of life. We set out to save the church on our own – with new programming, with innovative worship styles, with contemporary music, with meaningful mission projects, with thoughtful stewardship campaigns, etc., etc. Well, as good as those things might be, it seems to me that we must learn to trust God. As long as we insist that we are going to save the church then the church will not be saved, because we cannot save the church. Only God can do that. And as long as we put so much of our effort into trying to save the church rather than into doing the ministry of building real relationships with those around us, we're demonstrating that we don't trust God to save the church. And in any event, trying to save the church won't work, because - as I said - the collapse is not really the collapse of the church, it's the collapse of christendom, which we're largely powerless to stop.
If we can't stop the collapse of christendom, then, what can we do? I'll speak specifically about my own context in the United Church. With a meeting of the General Council of the United Church coming up very soon, let me lay it on the table: many in the United Church don't care much about the General Council; they don't even care much about the local Presbytery. I think the United Church is marching steadily toward a much more congregational form of church governance. That may be good or it may be bad (it will probably be a combination of both.) But it's inevitable. I think the vast majority of people in the pews are already there. Presbyteries are imploding under the workload they have to do to keep the bureaucracy functioning; as they become less and less able to do so more responsibility is being put on Conference staff, but congregations are reaching the point where they won't be able to continue to afford the assessments required to pay the Conference staff. Congregationalism (at least effective congregationalism, which will eventually have to be reflected in our polity) is on the way, whether we like that or not. This encroaching congregationalism itself will exacerbate a challenge that already exists. There really is no homogeneous United Church. United Church congregations are already all over the map in terms of theology, liturgy, worship styles, etc. I often think that it must be incredibly frustrating for United Church people to move to a new community and begin attending the United Church in their new community, only to discover that it's not the United Church they know. Some United Churches don't even identify themselves as a “United Church.” I know more than one United Church congregation that's chosen the name “Community Church.” The thinking seems to be that people are no longer attached to denominations and may be turned off by denominational labels because they represent the “organized religion” that so many are indifferent toward, so the "name brand" doesn't matter. People will simply try out local churches and choose the one they like. I'm unconvinced about that. I think more and more people are just more likely not to bother with the church at all if they have to try too hard to choose between 5 or 6 different churches in the community. On the other hand, it's true that - especially among the more "evangelical" Christian community - there is an increasingly hostile and even visceral attitude (and increasingly a very public one) toward the United Church. Many no longer consider us a "real" church. That, of course, is tremendously judgmental and does no credit to those denominations, but one can't deny that the attitude is out there. So, to a certain constituency, the very name “United Church” may be a reason for not just indifference but contempt.
Having said that, I'm not convinced that our salvation is to be found in becoming more like the evangelical churches, either in style or theology. Once again - our salvation, it seems to me, is to be found - yes - only in God, and only by discerning God's call to us. More and more in recent years, I have found my call to ministry being guided by these words from Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”