About two years ago, a local journalist wrote an artlcle on the decline of mainline protestantism. It was a fairly clearly written essay, but it was nothing that most of us didn't know. Liberal mainline churches are in decline.
I often read reasserting articles that look at this loss of membership gleefullyl: "I TOLD you that liberalism was causing the decline of churches. People are leaving in droves because of your politics and theological beliefs" they repeat.
I understand the sentiment. It would be nice to say that people are leaving the church because of beliefs.
But most people have been leaving churches - not because of belief - but because they can, and they don't pay the consequences. My grandparents didn't much believe in anything, but they did go to the local Prebyterian or Methodist or Episcopal church, because that was what was expected. They read scripture every Sunday, right before an early supper. Yet, my grandfather was an atheist, a Dutch scientist who preferred psychoanalysis to other sorts of religion. Church was what people did. Reasserters imply that modernism was invented in 2004, with the ordination of +Gene. But it's been a part of church life since Scopes, and plenty of Anglicans have had tepid beliefs since the Glorious Revolution.
But we are in a society where people exit churches easily. This is a different sort of society than 35 years ago, when people would argue but stick together, the way families might. Instead, our society rewards balkanization. If you like the priest's theology, you go to that church. If you don't like it, you're not welcome. Conservatives go to more conservative denominations, and liberals enter more liberal denominations. One consequence has been that Catholics who are tired of the hypocrisy in their church become Episcopalian. To me, this is just evidence that religious institutions are like others: they have ideas that can be bought and sold due to preference.
One of my parishioners said that his mother would go to whatever church where the pastor talked a lot about sin and damnation. If the pastor talked about loving others, she went to another church. She was mobile and had no denominational loyalty.
Reasserters and reappraisers might want to look at how the church has succumbed to the market. But there is another thing, that I suspect is the real root of our differences. Reappraisers have accepted, perhaps unthinkingly, that individual women make choices about sexuality and profession. From this the church has not recovered. Churches that have, by and large, accomodated women are still figuring out what this means. Conservatives have decided to resist.
As a modernist, I think that women should be in positions of leadership in the church, and that it is this fact that has saved the Episcopal church from the problems in the Roman church. But homosexuality would not have been an issue if women had not been allowed what was previously the purview of men: an elimination of the consequences of sex outside of marriage. The shift highlighted that sex is more clearly about pleasure and communication than about its accident, procreation. With this, homosexuality is more easily revealed and permitted in the culture.
By pointing this out, I'm not trying to say that we should return to the good old days, or that women are to blame. I'm saying that its not theology that has caused the supposed "decline" of parishes. Rather, people who didn't believe, but went anyway for social standing, don't need to go. As women made independent choices, they chose to have careers rather than volunteer in church. And it's not conservative churches that are growing fastest: its agnosticism or "apatheism."
Evangelicals are doing some interesting things. But first, I question if they have any kind of deep theology. You can listen to Joel Osteen and find little scripture [but he is a remarkable preacher]. He's got a big church, but I don't hear him making sense of suffering. Rick Warren has got some of this figured out, but he also stays away from hot topics. Evangelicals have a business model that works, in contrast to liberal churches.
Add the problem of music. Evangelical churches have... more accessible music than traditional Episcopal Churches. I say this from experience: I've preached evangelical, passionate sermons from the trinity; I've preached academic sermons; I've preached optimistic ones. But I get people really upset when I want to change the music. They want "traditional" music - the music that is designed to keep people out of church. but if I could get a good cospel vocal coach, we'd be a much more rockin' congregation.
I submit that if liberal churches were more aggressive, more business like and rearranged their furniture a bit, they would find a large percentage of the population intrigued by the message. Evangelicals have been better at this. They have been passionate about this. And perhaps this is the thing that we reappraisers have to consider: perhaps we're just not passionate enough. By trying to please everyone, we've diluted our message so that it is unrecognizable.
Do people join evangelical churches because of their theology? I wonder. Perhaps some evangelical churches are more likely to thrive in places where there's not much else going. Others simply like the style. But I think theology is not the first reason people join or leave churches. Exhaustion, or even better things to do on a Sunday, are reasons people leave churches; family, love, recreation and warmth are why people join. I suppose there is a theology to this, but as in most things, theology follows practice.