Learning to Read the Gospel Again
Image: Doug Fleener

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 ...

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Learning to Read the Gospel Again
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December 2011

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