Decline & Call

At this past Sunday's Old Fashioned Hymn Sing (which was fantastic, by the way), I talked to a couple that walked through the church doors for the first time. I got the impression they were expecting a regular church service but were delighted to sing old hymns for a spell. Afterwards, I learned that their home church was struggling and they felt the need to be open for a new spiritual home. No priest rejoices in conflict and/or decline of other churches. And while we always rejoice when new people walk through our doors looking for a home, we hate it when that journey began with conflict or spiritual decline. That's not good for anyone. The couple and I talked about the state of spirituality in America, how things have changed, and what should be done to address and ultimately reverse the problem. Or as I should say, how we can recognize the problem and not get in the way of the Holy Spirit's mission to transform death and decay into new life.

On Monday morning I read a fascinating article by Dr. Leander Harding, a priest and scholar in New York, where he addresses the growing decline in churches across the country and how the typical church leadership reaction is to come up with goals "without any genuine strategy" to achieve them. Often times, he writes, the real issues are misdiagnosed and so our goals and strategies try to treat the symptom instead of the cause. Dr. Harding lists some of the problems causing decline and I was delighted to see that our parish intuitions are in line with his observations. While we are certainly not perfect and have much, much room to grow and improve, I firmly believe we are on the right track. I quote the following from his article, which can be found in full here, along with my comments.

First of all, there are large theological issues. In the mainline churches there has been something very close to a surrender to the radical pluralism and relativism of Western intellectual culture and the inevitable loss of theological nerve that such a surrender entails. Faith is seen as a private choice and not as a claim about the truth that can be tested by reason and experience. This creates a kind of evangelical embarrassment. [I firmly believe this. Decline and conflict are most often rooted in theology and not personality or style. If we want to grow the church, we need to deepen our theology.]

A practical Deism forms the mindset of many of our clergy and laity. The relative neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity is both a sign and a cause of a lack of confidence in the presence of a God who acts in human affairs. [In 2005, UNC Chapel Hill sociologists published a groundbreaking work on the spiritual lives of teenagers. Among the nuggets mined from this work is the introduction of the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," which is to say many view God as a kind, benevolent deity who is there when we need him and will help us out. This kind of theology places no expectation on transformation of self or world and is completely self-centered.]

The way in which the doctrine of salvation is understood in both evangelical and liberal churches typically marginalizes the significance of the sacramental life of the parish church. The focus of salvation is either the isolated individual or the transformation of society. Growth in holiness in community is not typically a major theme in either case. [My doctoral dissertation was focused, in part, on this. The sacraments are the ultimate reason for coming to church. You can hear good music, good preaching, and have amazing fellowship away from the church. You cannot, however, receive valid communion. We can't compete with the Avett Brothers, the Peace Haven pool, or your iTunes, nor should we try. The Church then enters the realm of novelty. What we do best and what we do exclusively, is offer the means of grace - the sacraments - faithfully and frequently.]

Practical and pastoral issues form part of the problem. Massive biblical and liturgical illiteracy contributes to a persistent inter-generational failure of Christian formation. Our children and young people simply have not in most cases received any formation that enables a faith capable of withstanding the challenges of contemporary culture. Adults who were not adequately formed cannot pass on the faith to their children. If in the small town where I serve I could collect all the children and grandchildren that "should" belong to the parish our attendance would double. [Christian formation happens first and foremost in the home. The research referenced above from the UNC sociologists found that the number one reason young adults went to church and stayed was based on their parents' example and guidance, and not the cool youth director.]

Clergy deployment is a major problem. Parish churches need suitable, capable clergy who stay a long time. Parish-priest mismatches are a major problem. If a parish calls several clergy in a row that are a mismatch it can be very difficult if not impossible to recover. [God willing, I hope to be here for a while.]

Christianity is a kind of anti-brand for many people in our society. They know little about Christianity and the Church and what they know they don't like. Individual parishes may suffer from no reputation or a bad reputation. [St Timothy's is becoming known for our worship (liturgy and music), Abraham Project, and homeless shelter. This is a good thing. It's not based on personality or friendliness, which is hard to define and fleeting. It's based on objective practice.]

Our church culture is typically thin. The homes of our people are often no different in the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, and the media being consumed than the homes of non-believers. A thin church culture is a mismatch for a robust secular culture. [Culture is a word discussed frequently in staff, vestry, and finance meetings. It's a word we need to discuss more as a parish. How can we create and maintain an authentic Christian culture at St Timothy's; one that transmits our message and mission with and without words to people of all ages and from all backgrounds?]

~ Fr Steve

Fr. Steve Rice