I am completing my PhD at Michigan State University. I am an ex-evangelical, now progressive (Christian agnostic) with a question.
Your last email was on the topic "The Need for New Language within Progressive Christian Faith Communities." As a former worship leader (who used contemporary music) I have wondered (as has my wife) if there are any progressive congregations that offer modern music. Most mainline liberal or progressive churches remain culturally irrelevant.
I know why. Historically, the use of the cultural vernacular has been used to convert. Non-conversionist groups have little need to remain engaged. Or do they?
I wonder if your center might consider looking into a real need.
Historian Donald Miller (in Reinventing Protestantism) has noted this quite well. As a progressive, Miller somewhat laments that fact that mainline/progressive churches have lost ground to conservative evangelical churches that remain (ironically) modern, "hip," and relevant.
Thank you for your thoughtful question. Unfortunately I don't think it has a simple response. I agree that the mainline liberal churches have not remained culturally relevant. We know from data that we have collected for over the last 15 years that the single biggest reason people gave and still give for no longer attending church is that it is "no longer relevant to my life." And I do agree that the "new" churches like the ones that were the subject of Miller's book have made their worship services, their buildings and architecture and even their polity( no denominations) more modern and hip. We could all learn something from them and a few mainline churches have done that.
I disagree with Miller's thesis that the growth in these churches came from people leaving liberal mainline churches. In fact all of the church organizations that are referred to in Miller's book prided themselves for attracting the young, the unchurched and in large part single young adults.
Many of them were products of the 60's era when young married adults dropped out of the church scene as part of the anti-establishment movement. Their children were never part of a church to a great degree and were totally ignorant. Those are the young people, in large part, that these happening, evangelical churches attracted.
Also the churches, that Miller studied, did not have to fight over which hymnal to use, whether to keep the organ or play drums. They did not have to have fights about selling the old building with the giant steeple or whether the minister should wear a robe or socks for that matter. They did not have fights about whether they needed to recite the Lord's Prayer or follow the lectionary. Woefully those fights are still going on in mainline churches and have killed more than one church along the way.
However, the real problem for mainline churches, I believe, is that we do not know why we are in business. We don't know what our product is. For over forty years most mainline seminaries have taught their students preparing for the ministry that a good part of the Jesus story is myth, developed long after his death. We were taught how to do critical analysis of the biblical text, how to date scripture, how to discover redaction and doubt veracity.
We studied Paul Tillich and listened to brilliant professors Burton Mack (The Christian Myth). In 1983 I took a class called the Myth in the Bible.
We studied books by Alvin Boyd Kuhn and Gerald Massey who were experts on mythology, particularly Egyptian. They argue that there probably was no Jesus but the rather the story was a common one in Egyptian mythology and was added to the story of a very human being. Few future ministers left those classes in those years thinking the real Jesus, if there was one, was a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. And even fewer thought that we were saved from eternal hell by our beliefs in Jesus as our personal savior.
Holy cow...we no longer sell the keys to the kingdom (heaven after we die).
So what have most of our mainline clergy done with all of the new information? Primarily two things. One we talked about social justice. We made Jesus into Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr before they were even famous. We became liberal fundamentalist. We put on our robes and told the congregation that God wanted us to be like Jesus. We told folks if they were good Christians, they would feed the hungry and helped lift up the poor because that is what the "Bible" tells us to do and that is what Jesus would have done. We got excited about liberation theology. We became social advocates and we were proud of our accomplishments because that is what "God wanted" because it was in the holy scriptures, and it gave us something to talk about. It made some people feel good about their church. Look what we are doing!!! Way too many of those clergy had the courage to teach and even preach what they had learned in graduate seminary.
In the meantime those people who were hurting, searching, lost and wanting, they came and went. And over the years they came a lot less because when you are in need, trying to solve the hunger situation is just a diversion at best. All of this before the organ, the hip music and the gymnasium-like worship centers. Those that needed help moved toward the eastern religions and those who wanted to help went to Save the Whales.
The tragedy in all of this, is not that mainline churches are closing every week across the country. The tragedy is that when you scrape through the layers of creedal muck, the egos and fiefdoms of old Christianity, there really is a powerful message in the Jesus story. There really is a path that can lead to a more fulfilling and exciting life. There really is marked way that can lead to an experience of the Realm. There is something to the story that can bring sight to the blind and ears to hear. In other words, to be AWAKE to the reality around us.
There is hope. There are a few people who get that and are sharing it through books and lectures. People like Cynthia Bourgeault (Wisdom Jesus), Robin Myers (Saving Jesus from the Church), Greta Vosper( With or Without God), Bruce Sanguin(Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos), John Shelby Spong and others including myself are writing about this way of approaching our faith. We are attempting to be and teach Christianity as a way of living and experiencing life. Churches that are authentically doing this are thriving-not necessarily in the numbers of the mega churches in Orange County, CA are but thriving in the way that they are impacting lives.
Will we be able to save the church. Probably not in the form that it is in, but I believe this strand of Christianity will grow and be around for a long time. It will continue to change lives and with a little luck change the way people see the world.
Thanks for your interesting question. I hope this has been helpful.