Learning to Read the Gospel Again
A few months ago, a graduate student in practical theology asked Stanley Hauerwas for his perspective on new church movements, especially emergent church movements. Disarming and epigrammatic as ever, the man whom Time once called "America's Best Theologian" replied, "The future of the church is not found in things like this; the future is doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday."
This may seem dismissive. The student certainly took it that way, and indicated as much on his blog. I want to suggest, though, that Hauerwas was essentially right. But first I would point to a legitimate layer of anxiety that underlies the student's frustration.
The anxiety, briefly, is that the Christian faith is broken. We all know of statistics on the decline of mainline Christianity. To focus on the particular branch where I worship: The Episcopal Church, according to its own publications, lost a third of its membership between 1965 and 2009. A recent article on a Roman Catholic website claims that "within the next 3 to 5 years more than 2,000 churches across the country will be forced to close, merge or be sold." Sociologists of religion (both the professional and armchair variety) continue to debate the causes of this notable decline. In a recent paper, David Hollinger, president of the Organization of American Historians, makes a persuasive case for two key factors within mainline denominations: dramatically declining birthrates, and a failure in what he calls the "acculturation" of their children.
The first factor is simple enough, and relates to a rise in college and graduate school enrollments among parishioners: Husbands and wives want to finish school and solidify their careers before becoming moms and dads, and end up having smaller families. The second factor, though, is worth exploring. How and why have the mainline denominations failed at acculturation, at incorporating children and young adults into the rhythms and practices of the Christian faith? Hollinger suggests a lingering cloud of mainline guilt as a possible contributing cause.
To summarize all too briefly: During the 1960s, as Christianity came under attack in an increasingly secularist society, mainliners became bashful about embracing the content of Christian teachings. Instead, they turned to social projects as the "new core" of the faith, leaving their children primed to spend Sunday mornings at neighborhood meetings (or perhaps at home, blogging about politics). Evangelicals, by and large, did not suffer the same embarrassment. Unmoved by the rhetoric of secularism, they taught their children to go on carrying their Bibles and talking about Jesus. For Hollinger, the rise in evangelicalism parallels the mainline decline.
Against this historical backdrop, a degree of anxiety over the appeal of new Christian movements is well founded. If young churchgoers are coming of age thinking they can trade the gospel message for participation in social causes, and demean the creeds and Communion as disposable husks, then something is indeed broken.
Voicing the Gospel
In this respect, Hauerwas's answer might appear most offensive. Isn't "doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday" the trouble? Can we afford to engage in business as usual if business as usual is sinking the church?
It all depends, of course, on what "same thing" we are doing. If we mean the same failures of acculturation, then clearly this is wrongheaded: The future of the church very decidedly is not found in coughing with embarrassment during Gospel readings, or in nervous thumb-twiddling during prayer. But if "the same thing week after week" means proclaiming the gospel, forgiving sins, and attending to the various classical practices that form people's lives within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we must agree: The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell, or high water.