Thursday, January 14, 2010

A New Year and Mainline Hopes

Everything is up for grabs at the start of the 10th year of the 21st Century.

Not unlike the years surrounding Calvin's tumultuous and creative life. At any point in time, it was impossible to predict how the next ten years would unfold in Geneva. Yet Calvin wrote prodigiously and hopefully, anchored in God's sovereignty and with a passion for the person in the pew, so to speak.

As I begin the year and look back over my 40 years of ordained ministry, I turn to the future of mainline denominations with hope for our emergence from a "dark" period of time. Or was it so dark?

One man's darkness may be another man's light.

The last 40 years have seen us RECOVER from the supreme success we enjoyed after WW2 and during much of the 20th Century; we built our megachurches all across the landscape in American cities - talk about 24/7, with incredible programs, jammed worship services, gymnasiums and full-service ministries. Our pulpits were manned by princes, our seminaries were guided by theologians of immense ability, missions were expanding and especially after WW2, thousands of new congregations sprung up in the growing American suburbs, many of which became the second generation megachurch.

Yet in the midst of this, there remained small town and rural churches, places of energy and pastoral strength, but with huge shifts in American population, the disappearance of many of them was inevitable.

Our first generation of megachurches in the cities have clearly suffered huge transitions, and many of them are long gone, tough there are plenty of remarkable exceptions - e.g. Fourth Church in Chicago. And in our older suburbs, where so much of the post WW2 growth occurred, changing cultural patterns and the aging of the inner-ring suburbs have shrunk many of our second-generation megachurches, and many have closed their doors.

During this period of time, new forms of worship and music emerged, inaugurating what came to be known as the worship wars, and bloody they were, but out of the noise and smoke emerged a third generation of megachurches, beginning with Schuller's Chrystral Cathedral, a hybrid of sorts, of mainline and independent trajectories. Then came Willow Creek and Saddleback, and the rest of is history. All across America, the emergence of flagship megachurches - stripped down buildings, 24/7 small groups, high-tech worship, preaching that was both biblical and pastoral. Yet thousands of smaller congregations continued their work, though overshadowed by the media exposure of the large churches.

And there emerged, during this period of time, a truism: Conservative churches are growing and liberal churches are shrinking.

The problem with a truism is that it’s always a half-truth; it surely reflects a pattern, but some took that pattern as if it were the absolute and final blessing of God, and they became legends in their own time, if not their own minds. And the growth and creativity in other settings was ignored, if not ridiculed.

What with America's fascination with "leadership" and growth, folks forgot that church growth is largely the result of two factors: God's grace and location.

Stats in the last few years are beginning to reveal cracks in the truism; conservative churches are experiencing what the mainliners experienced 50 years as the tides turned. Their ranks are rife with debate, if not full-out rancor, with plenty of heresy trials underway, moral failures (nothing new there, but a reminder that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time, even the superstars of the megachurch stages - pulpits, of course, no longer used), and slight declines in attendance – is this small change preface to the larger changes that occur inevitably in the shifting sands of time?

The megachurch and its success has stilted its creativity. Look at a 25-year old video and one shot last Sunday, and there is no difference: the clergy wear jeans and shirts pulled out, use high-tech tools, and preach pretty much the same message, and for many these days, the message has become a pop-psychology mix of personal triumphalism infused with Old Testament stories and a lot of Pauline materials.

The vaunted success of the "conservative" church is no longer a sure bet, and the churches that hung their heads in shame over their lack of or negligible growth are beginning to emerge from the shadows only to discover their worth, and that God is in their ranks as well, doing mighty things.

It's too early to tell, but the truism that propped up the pride of some (yes, it was pride, wasn't it?) and caused thousands of good pastors and fine congregations to hang their heads in shame and exhaustingly chase after every new program that came down the pike from the publishing houses or was touted at the megachurch teaching seminars, is clearly shifting. And sadly, thousands of congregants bought the truism and blamed their pastors, their denominations, their seminaries when the "thousands didn't show up,” even as the truism pitted enthusiastic pastors against their congregants, charging them with lack of vision and willingness.

But new images and ideas are emerging! The culture wars are subsiding. Mainline congregations, battered and bruised, are recovering, and books like "Christianity for the Rest of Us" by Diana Butler Bass are a part of the reconstitution of the mainline church.

Things are a-changin' ... God does that; lest we build our towers to the heavens, God comes down and confuses our language, spreading us out to the world.

All of us are learning, and perhaps we're learning how to bless one another, help one another. Megachurches are grappling with Barna-type studies that reveal embarrassing failures in their efforts to make disciples and nurture their own children into the faith.

Mainliners are catching their breath and regaining their confidence.

Sure, the church as I knew it when I was ordained at the First Presbyterian Church in Holland, Michigan, is long gone, but new energy is emerging all over the place, and we will find new ways of being Presbyterian, connectional and missional. Leaner, for sure; but not meaner. Humbler and contrite, as we discover God's grace anew.

I think the next ten years will be very good for the mainline churches, and the megachurches, too - as we learn how to humbly love one another and appreciate our respective visions and ministries.

After all, we’re all in this together … for the glory of God!