Friday, August 21, 2015

Instead of McBrien on Friday, A New President of the United Church of Christ Makes Some Wonderful Points

That graph I posted yesterday didn't exactly please me in some regards, the biggest of those was the figure showing that Congregationalists were losing the membership of their children at an alarming rate.  What's so alarming is that the Congregational Church has been one of the strongest forces in liberal social movements and politics for the entire history of the United States.  I can't see how anyone who valued economic justice, equal rights and the right of all people to a decent life in which they are respected for their full diversity couldn't be dismayed that the United Church of Christ would vanish or remain as a shadow of itself.   While it's true that there are other churches which have had a large role in promoting those things, sometimes with an impact far larger than their numbers would indicate, the Quakers being one of the most important of those, there is nothing good about that decline.

I hope that John Dorhauer, the new General Minister and President of the UCC, is successful in his intention to fix whatever it is that is hollowing out one of the most important liberal institutions and attracts new members committed to its justice tradition.  I do think that he is right, religion, especially liberal Protestantism, seems to be changing its form as fewer people go to the traditional Sunday morning services.

All this figures into what Dorhauer says will be one of the main themes of his presidency: to call the UCC to rethink itself and to consider new ways of “being church.” Postmoderns, he says, are less interested in institutional religion than their predecessors and tend not to be joiners but “samplers.”

“A whole new way of discovering the life of faith is emerging without the permission of or training required by the established church,” he writes in Beyond Resistance. “Those engaged in this faith exploration aren’t asking for permission.”

He doesn’t think what some call “the emergent church” will supplant the established churches so much as that the new will develop alongside the old for a long time. But he does foresee “mergers, partnerships, and downsizing as denominations realize over time that they are attracting fewer and fewer customers to the marketplace they currently occupy.”

Such transformations are not unique to the UCC or to even mainline Protestantism. Dorhauer thinks that most religious institutions are in danger of becoming “irrelevant” in the postmodern era. 

That is what I suspect is behind a lot of the unsubtle numbers in the Pew and Gallup surveys, the numbers that are often cited as representing a decline of Christianity and religion.  As an aside, It's possible to look at declines in church going or church membership and imagine people who leave one Christian denomination leave Christianity when that's not true.  It's not like the numbers of those who leave atheism because atheists who "leave" aren't leaving a church, they're leaving atheist ideology, you have to leave an absolutist position like atheism absolutely in order to leave it, there is no alternative atheism to remain in.

I suppose the question will be, well, if you think that way, why don't you join the UCC?  I did think of it, very seriously.   The nearest church to me, a town away, is a wonderful congregation that has one of the most active justice and social service ministries of any church in the area.   Maybe I'm just too Catholic to do it, maybe it's because I can't get used to the hymns.  If I did join I'd be more likely to participate in their meals program or their families of alcoholics support groups or one of their many other ministries than go to Sunday services.  I have a friend who isn't a member of their formal congregation but who participates in and contributes to those Congregationalist ministries, as do a lot of people, Protestants, Catholics and some Jewish folk who are involved in them as well.  I'd count that as a sort of participation in Congregational religion, certainly in that congregation's work.

Dorhauer talks a lot about that in the interview section of the article linked to above.

“Membership” as currently defined by (and deemed essential for) the institutional church will have no meaning in a postmodern, emergent world. People will belong in both an organic and fluid way to those groups or cohorts that provide their lives with meaning, that meet their spiritual hungers, that equip them to encounter the sacred, and that engage them in actions that effect change in the world.

People may actively participate in two or three such communities of faith. They may stay with one for a while, only to move easily and seamlessly into another for no other reason that it feels right to them.

In some ways, this reminds me of the descriptions of the earliest Church as described in Acts and the letters of Paul.  One of the big problems they faced were differences in what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, there were some disagreements about what was required and, in the case of Paul, suspicion about him from the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, James and Peter.  One thing they were all unified in, though, was in their action for the poor, that was the one thing they demanded of Paul when he was going out on his extensive missionary work to gain converts, to remember the poor.  If the Christians of whatever churches or congregations or groups of the future do that, if they struggle to make equality and justice real in real lives, if they struggle against injustice,  they will have continued the very heart of Christianity, the very reason for it to exist, something that is generally not reported in surveys.

As a musician, I hope they keep the organs mentioned right after that in the interview, the tradition of congregational singing, as well.   Though that's merely an artistic hope.  The rest of it sounds like an excellent idea, to me.

They won’t be investing their missional resources of time, talent, and money in building and property, in sanctuaries adorned with stunning Tiffany stained-glass windows and nine-rank pipe organs and mahogany pews. They will meet wherever two or three can gather, and wherever the divine can be encountered they will be open to engaging that space and declaring it sacred.

The Tiffany windows, meh.  I like what The Reverend Ames said about the beauty of plain glass showing God's creation in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.  And when his friend, the Reverend Boughton disdainfully said in Home, when he was shown the new Presbyterian church his congregation built after he retired with its stained glass about the Episcopalians winning.  If I hadn't lent my copy I'd find the exact quote.   Any church that can attract and keep one of the major intellectuals of our time, certainly one of our greatest writers, has something to offer.

That Dorhauer has announced that struggle against racism and privilege based in race, gender, etc. will be a main focus of his presidency, is wonderful as well.   The United Church of Christ has been one of the major and early institutions in that struggle and it continued in struggle for justice for  LGBT folk.  In the celebrations of marriage equality being achieved this year I couldn't help but note that even as that happened, racially motivated killing, by police, by armed vigilantes and groups of people were increasing and the media, especially the cabloids, were inciting it by promoting racism.  We've gone back to the worst part of the 1950s and 60s if not earlier as right-wing Republicans and others use racism to gain power.  That focus is both timely and a part of the perpetual struggle against evil, identifying it as evil, of sin is something that can be most effectively done in religion.


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  2. I agree with his comments on membership. That has become a magic word, a conjuring word, like "Citizenship" in the context of immigrants and the 14th Amendment. Citizenship gives you two things in America: a right not to be deported, and a right to vote. Most people never use the latter. Membership in the UCC gives you a vote; and that's all.

    Doesn't make you show up every Sunday, tithe, put any money in the plate, do anything for the community, etc. Doesn't mean anything, IOW. "Membership numbers" in any church are largely chimerical: they include people who haven't been there for decades, or who may even be dead. In most churches the membership rolls are a mess, and churches who try to straighten them out soon find their real membership less than half of what they supposed. Which just makes things depressing.

    But honestly, the utility of membership escapes me. It proves nothing about the validity of the congregation or denomination, and provides nothing to the individual or the congregation. I'm not for abolishing it, but the claims it used to make on people are gone, and were pretty much gone with the Boomers (of which I am one). I haven't officially changed my membership in a church in nearly 40 years, but I've been in attendance, or in charge of several churches in those 4 decades.

    Perhaps the saddest part of this is that what's being described in that interview is the state of the church for probably the last quarter century, at least; if not much longer. It is taking the church this long to face that, much as it takes the country decades to face that Mom is no longer staying home with the kids, neighborhoods are no longer lily-white in the suburbs, and Heather can have two mommies or two daddies, and all will still be well with Heather.

    There's nothing new in what Dorhauer is saying; the conditions he describes have been with us a long time. What's new is that the leader of denomination is saying them. And that may, or may not, be effective. I know when I tried to tell my congregation where they really stood, as opposed to where they thought they stood, they blamed their decades long decline in members and attendance on me, who'd been there only 2 years.

    This message is a great way for the messenger to get shot, in other words.

  3. Cleaning up my own error:

    He doesn’t think what some call “the emergent church” will supplant the established churches so much as that the new will develop alongside the old for a long time. But he does foresee “mergers, partnerships, and downsizing as denominations realize over time that they are attracting fewer and fewer customers to the marketplace they currently occupy.”

    Can't say that language brings me any comfort. I've been in too many churches that see themselves in terms of a business model, with the pastor the one responsible for putting "butts in the pews," as if the purpose of church was to fill the worship space on Sunday morning.

    The next pressure after that is to get those wallets under those butts to open as the plate goes by, because what good is having lots of people there if nobody pays? Of course, "I" already pay enough, so you need to talk to "that guy"....

    Do I sound cynical? I'm all for revitalizing the church; but using the language of the marketplace to do it makes me think of Jesus and the merchants in the Temple.....

    We (the UCC) need a new vision. We don't need new wine in old wineskins.