Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Practical is Theological

The reason I switched majors from Youth Ministry to Theology when I was in college was not that I didn't care about youth ministry. I never really stopped caring about youth ministry. It was and always has been my passion. However, because it was my passion, I couldn't stand it when people refused to see or dismissed the fundamental theological nature of the practice. I was frustrated by a program which centralized social sciences (psychology in particular) and even the methodological over against theology and the theological. At best, the dominant voices in the program used theology as justification, but there was a general anxiety to rush past any theological question that didn't seem practical, or to only illuminate those parts of the theological conversation which were obviously and immediately practical. The assumption was that theology must be practical and if it wasn't, then it was irrelevant. Theology, in its own right wasn't taken very seriously. Rather than allowing the practical to emerge from the theological, in some sense, the round peg of the theological was forced into the square hole of the practical... and when it didn't fit after being pounded with a hammer, it was tossed out.

My young peers in the practical theology department were probably as frustrated with me as I was with them. When they wanted to skim past a theological question, I was stubborn in staying with it. I insisted that it mattered how we perceived, for example, the divine presence in creation (was it really just a vertical relationship while human relationships are horizontal? I can remember one professor rolling his eyes at me when I stopped the class to question this assumption. He wanted to move on to the "real" point of the conversation). By and large, theology was a sort of obstacle, a speed bump (and, I should say, the people with greater theological affinities probably saw it as a necessary speed bump) we had to pass over, because we're good Christians, on the path to the practical. But I couldn't help but think that it had to be more important, it had to be essential, it had to be not just a speed bump on the path but the path itself as well as the destination.

If aspiring practical theologians don't stop seeing the theological as a speed-bump on the path to the practical, then they should admit that they are not practical theologians. They might be practitioners with certain theological affinities, but practical theologians don't merely insist that the theological must be practical (and thus roll their eyes at theological discussions which don't make themselves immediately applicable or accessible) but that the practical is fundamentally theological.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tweet the Gospel?

I am currently participating in an "independent study" with several friends (conceived organized by Joshua Rodriguez) on "Preaching To Youth." It's generally about preaching in the context of youth ministry, taking seriously the realities of contemporary adolescence and the cultural influences which should and must condition the way we communicate the gospel. We've been benefitting from the academic contributions (i.e. dissertations) of Andrew Zirschky and Stephen M. Cady to help inform our discussions.

In discussing the dominance of social media in American (Western) society, a thought came up amongst us (mostly, I think, from Ted Jordan). In exploring how (and if) the gospel can be communicated through social media, "let's see what people would say if we asked them to tweet the gospel." How could the gospel be communicated in 140 characters or less? I'm planning on blogging a bit about this in the next several days, but I'd like to see what others would say... consider replying to my tweet:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Future is Ours by Redemption

“Ever since the beginning of the middle-class era, with its faith in progress, belief in progress has dominated the upbringing of children too. Childhood now came to be understood only as the preliminary stage on the way to the full personhood of the adult… Every lived moment has an eternal significance and already constitutes a fulfilled life. For fulfilled life is not measured by the number of years that have been lived through, or spent in one way or another. It is measured according to the depth of lived experience.” -Jürgen Moltmann (In The End--The Beginning, 6-7).
I've been doing a lot of thinking about childhood lately. Not in some nostalgic sense, so much, but as a "stage" of development. Understanding how society looks at childhood is a key to understanding how society looks at adolescence (for some people, the difference is insignificant). While there are distinct and important differences between childhood and adolescence, what the two have in common is that, according to society's commitment to development and progress, they both receive their definition from the normative standards of adulthood. They are both measured against the standard of maturity and thus are judged as inherently immature. They are what they are not. And this is so because we have allowed the future, in some sense, to determine the value of the present.

I want to critique this progressivist/developmental commitment on the basis of the true humanity and dignity of childhood and adolescence in their own right. Rather than measuring them against the standards of adulthood, I want to affirm their dignity according to their own terms. This seems reasonable to me, given the theological reality of the incarnation (the cross). But I have a dilemma. In theological terms, the future does, in some sense, determine the truth about the present. The future of God (the resurrection) interprets the present. There may be better places from which to quote Moltmann on this, but one quote comes to mind: "Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present" (Moltmann, Theology of Hope). If the future of God, in some sense, gives us a lens through which to interpret the present, then how can we give the present the dignity it deserves?

I think that what allows Moltmann to write both Theology of Hope and The Crucified God (a book about the hope of the future and a book about God's solidarity with the present), what allows him to say, "Every lived moment has an eternal significance and already constitutes a fulfilled life," is that he separates eschatology from development and progress. Eschatology is not progress or development. The coming of God, promised in the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, is not something we achieve or construct from the potentiality of the present. That future in which God will be "All in All"--a future which is for every crucified person and which in some sense interprets the present on which the cross of Jesus stands--comes to us by redemption, not development. We are free to live according to the promised future precisely because its fruition does not depend on our action. The meaning of our present, every present, even the ones that don't have the potential to develop, comes from God's future. And so, "...fulfilled life is not measured by the number of years that have been lived through..." or by the degree to which that life is able to progress in its correspondence with goals for the future.  "It is measured according to the depth of lived experience."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Andrew Kellner on Mentoring in Youth Ministry

At the Youth Ministry in Small Churches event from IYM, I had the privilege of interviewing Andrew Kellner, the Canon for Family & Young Adult Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. He has some wonderful insights on mentoring and the advantages of small church youth ministry. Check out the video... and check out IYM's "Weekly Forum" blog.

Mentoring - Andrew Kellner from Princeton IYM on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Scot McKnight on Andrew Root

It's a small world.

I remember the first time a "famous person" recognized me and said my name before I said theirs. It's petty, I know, but when I was a high schooler, just getting into theology and biblical studies, it was a significant moment for me when I walked up to Scot McKnight and and he said, "Wes Ellis," and reached out for a handshake. Scot was a guest speaker at a conference for which I was a staff member. I started reading his blog way back when he first started blogging and, through his blog, he actually recognized me when we met at the conference. Scot remained an important voice for my spiritual and theological formation.

Fast forward to about four years ago.

My theological and ministerial trajectory ran from Scot (and others like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell), through N.T. Wright, through Stanley Hauerwas, through Jürgen Moltmann, and eventually to Andrew Root. At this point, I can name few (if any... maybe Moltmann) who have been more formative than Andy of my whole theological and practical framework for ministry. And though it feels like so much has changed and though it feels like Scot and Andy should be on different planets because I've moved so far since I first read Jesus Creed about ten years ago, it's funny how things stay in the same stream and eventually come back around.

Scot McKnight has been posting on his blog about Root's latest book, Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker. The latest post, "Who Owns Bonhoeffer" is an especially helpful little introduction to what Andy is up to in the book. I encourage you to check it out: 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Youth Ministry and Development: Beyond Gerontocentrism

"...true identity is ours by redemption, not by development." -Kenda Creasy Dean
This weekend I went to the IYM's Youth Ministry in Small Churches event at Carmel Presbyterian Church near Philadelphia. The event was wildly successful and thoroughly insightful. As a new member of the IYM staff, it was a real pleasure for me to be a part of the event.

As I said, the content of the event was thoroughly insightful. I think youth workers and Pastors walked away with some real perspective and tools for their ministries, whether they be from larger or smaller churches. And, truly incidental to the wonderful success of the conference was a basic assumption that was made about what youth ministry ultimately is. In one of the opening conversations, a working definition was offered "that we can all pretty much agree with." It said that youth ministry is " disciple adolescents into mature Christian adulthood." Now, this was merely offered as a definition with which we could work in order to discern between experiences that are essential and those which are "very helpful" in youth ministry (an important distinction to make!), and it served that function quite effectively. But I wonder if that definition is really the best one for us to be operating on. It was perfectly fair to assume that we'd agree on that definition. I am sure, from my experience, that most of our ministries either explicitly or implicitly aspire to such a definition quite faithfully. But is that really the best one for us? Is youth ministry really about making "mature Christian adults"?

In the following few thoughts I'll be criticizing this perspective. I think, for the sake of clarity, I should mention that I'm not criticizing the fact that the definition was used, per se, but the implicit culture of youth ministry which I think he insightfully identified in his definition. I am criticizing the fact that it's fair to assume that everybody's using this definition. And it'll be helpful, too, for me to mention that my criticisms are internal. This is the definition by which I've operated at every stage of my own ministry experience, so I am complicit in the very perspective at which I'm throwing a very big question mark.

Erik Erikson
What's interesting about this definition--" disciple adolescents into mature Christian adulthood"--is that what lies at its center, as its ultimate concern, is not the youth, as such, but the Christian adulthood into which we are trying to develop them. Ministry becomes fundamentally goal oriented... not just goal oriented, but normatively so. We have inherited this focus on development and maturity from the world of developmental psychology, particularly from the "stage theories" of folks like Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. While we owe much to these theorists, perhaps we've taken their fundamental assumptions a bit too seriously. The basic presupposition of the models of developmental psychology which we've inherited is that life itself can be understood as development through stages. For example, Erikson understood life as consisting of eight stages; each one leading to the next. Childhood or adolescence, then, is defined and scrutinized not so much on its own terms but according to its effectiveness in developing from itself into something else. Each stage of the life cycle receives its core value from its capacity to develop and contribute to development from one life stage to another, until it's goal, maturity, is reached. Youth is only of concern as a stage on its way to adulthood and thus it is judged according to the standards of adulthood. Childhood receives a somewhat apophatic definition. It is what it's not. Since maturity is where it's all headed, each stage is essentially understood according to its basic immaturity. It's all about "entering the adult world," so the value and importance of adolescence, as such, are co-opted by and instrumentalized for adulthood. The ultimate concern, when the eye is turned to adolescence is not adolescence but adulthood.

We've definitely taken this bait of developmental psychology in youth ministry--hook, line, and sinker--because, well, how else should we see it? How else can we understand youth ministry but as making Christian adults?

Not to say that there aren't critical apparatus built in, at some level, to the basic perspective of deleopmental psychology, but according to its popular application, it has fundamentally centralized adulthood and maturity at every stage of development. Sociologists and anthropologists in the world of childhood studies have offered perspectives that can definitely be seen as criticisms of these basic assumptions of stage theory. While admitting that immaturity is a "biological fact," some sociologists have suggested that childhood, as "a fact of culture," is to be understood as a social construction (see Allison James and Alan Prout, Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood). And, as a social construction, we must wonder if childhood must be understood according to its biological immaturity and we must consider what implications emerge from allowing adulthood to set the terms for our concern for childhood (or adolescence). In rethinking the "ideology of development" implicit in traditional perspectives on developmental psychology, Chris Jenks coined the term "gerontocentrism," (stemming from the greek word "geron," for "old man") likening the ontological prioritization of adulthood in sociological study to ethnocentrism (which is the "evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one's own culture" according to my Google search). It will be helpful to quote Jenks at length here:
"Childhood receives treatment as a stage, a structured process of becoming, but rarely as a course of action or coherent social practice. The type of 'growth' metaphors that are readily adopted in discussions about childhood all pertain to the character of what is yet to be and yet which is also presupposed. Thus childhood is spoken about as: a 'becoming'; ...taking on; growing up; preparation; inadequacy; inexperience; immaturity, and so on. Such metaphoricity all speaks of an essential and magnetic relation to an unexplicated, but nevertheless firmly established, rational adult world. This adult world is assumed to be not only complete, recognizable and in stasis, but also, and perhaps most significantly, desirable. It is a benevolent and coherent totality which extends a welcome to the child, invites him to cast off the qualities that ensure his difference, and encourages his acquiescence to the preponderance of the induction procedures that will guarantee his corporate identity. For the anthropologist to proceed from such a stance would be for him to invite the charge of ethnocentrism." (Chris Jenks, Childhood, Second Edition, 8). 
When childhood or adolescence is seen from a gerontocentric vantage point, as is the case in the worst manifestations of "stage theory," it carries with it a distinct, though implicit, dehumanizing quality. As Alan Prout and Allison James write, "The dominant developmental approach to a self-sustaining model...rationality is the universal mark of adulthood... childhood is therefore important to study as a presocial period of difference, a biologically determined stage on the path to full human status i.e. adulthood..." (James and Prout, 10). With the standards of adulthood setting the terms for the value and humanity of children, the standards of failure and achievement are thereby also set. "Failure to be harmoniously socialized into society's functioning meant, in effect, a failure to be human" (14). The success of childhood, and therefore adolescence as well, is contingent upon it's development. And from this gerontocentric vantage point, the value of ministry, too, becomes contingent upon its ability to develop; in this case, its ability to develop "mature Christian adults." So, since our success in ministry depends on it, either implicitly or explicitly, we are forced to prioritize those adolescents who have the best potential and those kids who exhibit the qualities which best correspond to the adulthood into which we are developing them. We are forced to set goals which prioritize the success of the adolescent to mature, and thus we are forced to set goals which prioritize the most likely to succeed, the superstar of the youth group.

In Youth Ministry, all our goals--or to put it in theological language--our eschatology has been hijacked by a normative gerontocentrism. Our ministry to young people is determined by and centered upon not the young people themselves in the reality of their present, but upon the adulthood into which we want to "disciple" them. What should be normative in youth ministry, is neither a developmental psychology of the "life cycle" or an ethical sociology or anthropology but, in fact, the gospel of Jesus Christ which has, at its center, the incarnation of God in the broken body of Jesus Christ on his cross. Every goal of ministry and every Christian eschatology must be determined by and articulated according to this gospel. I could say a lot more about the relationship of gerontocentrism and eschatology here, but suffice to say for now; eschatology is not about the development of the present stage of the world into some other more important stage, it's not the extension of the world's present potential into future realization, and it's not the resurrection of those parts of the present which are not subject to death. Eschatology is the interruption of God's grace, God's resurrection, God's future into the reality of the very present in which the cross of Jesus stands, announcing to that present not a future into which it must be developed but a future, Jesus' future, which becomes our future. The present is not becoming the future. In Jesus Christ, God's future becomes our future. (This, I suggest, is one way to understand the two-sided coin that is Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope and The Crucified God).

Ministry, then, determined by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not contingent upon the success of development into maturity. In essence, it's not primarily about 'growth.' The object and center of ministry must not be the Christian adulthood into which adolescents are developing, but the adolescents themselves, as legitimate humans and social actors in their own right. We need not set goals external to the youth themselves. We need not set goals which prioritize the superstar with the greatest potential to reach the goals we (or God) have set for them. We are free to define youth ministry according to the ministry we extend--i.e. things like "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23)--in the present moment, not just to the kid most likely to develop those attributes (I am willing to contend that "the Fruit of the Spirit" are not to be conceived as attributes at all), but to the "weary and heavy laden" (Matthew 11:28) who are desperate to find rest for their souls. Growth may follow, and we trust that it will, but the success of our ministry does not depend on growth. The success of our ministry depends on our love for people, regardless of their ability or inability to mature into Christian adulthood. Ministry, ultimately, depends on the encounter with God which occurs in the life of every child and adolescent, the divine and human encounter which Christ descended into hell to pursue.

Friday, October 03, 2014

"A More Interesting God"

Lillian Daniel is one of my favorite preachers. Period.

But I especially appreciate her as a member of the UCC. In a denomination which has, as one of its greatest strengths, an ethos of acceptance and inclusivity, these strengths can also be its greatest weakness. There are times when inclusivity becomes normative to the point where theological reflection (and the particular ecclesiological identity of the church as the church of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit) takes a back seat. In this context, Lillian Daniel is an important (sometimes even prophetic) voice. She's certainly not a "conservative," she holds up the basic values of inclusivity and acceptance, but she never forgets why she does.

Last year at the IYM Forms on Youth Ministry, Rev. Daniel was a keynote speaker and this clip was recently shared on the IYM "Weekly Forum."

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Somewhat Raw Thoughts on the Future and Youth Ministry

What is the future for youth ministry? Or, to put it differently, what's the role of the future in youth ministry? This has been the question on my mind lately. I'm not so anxious to ask, what is the future of youth? I think that question is important and many people are thinking about it, trying to innovate and respond to contemporary issues. But what I'm more concerned about is how we think about the future. What is the future's relationship to the present? Does the future have some ontological authority over the present? What authority (and what kind of authority) should we give it?

On Wednesday mornings I lead a small Bible study at my church. Currently, the group consists of me and six or seven "little old ladies" from the church. You might think that, as a youth worker, I'd be out of my element in a group like this. But, in fact, I find myself feeling right at home with these ladies. We are going through the book of John. We've only been doing it for a couple of weeks, but we've already had some really lively and enlightening conversations. 

Today, we read the story at the end of John's first chapter in which Jesus gathers his first disciples. When Simon comes to Jesus, Jesus says to him, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas [or Peter]" (John 1:42). From there on, we know Simon as Peter. Peter is his new name, his new identity. Peter, as you may know, means "rock." Jesus alludes to this in Matthew's gospel when, upon giving Peter his new name, Jesus says, "...on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).  One of the ladies in our group insightfully pointed out that Peter, throughout the gospels, proves to be just about anything but a rock. He's a bit unpredictable, often opening his mouth when he shouldn't and proverbially tripping over his own shoelaces. But, in the book of Acts, he's different. He truly becomes a leader for the church and a rock on whom people can rely. It seems that there's a change in him after the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus named Peter and identified him not for who he was, suggested the lady in our group, but for who he would become. What she was really pointing out to us was that we too are not identified by God according to what we do but according to who we will become through God's gracious salvation and redemption. We take our cues not only from what we are now, but from what we will be.

Now, there's certainly good news in that! I am not loved and valued by God according to what I can accomplish in the present in order to reach into the future, but according to God's future which reaches back upon itself and speaks into the present. I am whole and new now according to God's word of promise which is an ontological reality in the present because of its revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The future happens to us now in Jesus Christ and in our encounter with God through him in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this sense, the future has an authority over the present. But when that authority is limited only to those good things of the present which have the potential to be extended into the future, this becomes bad news. And when, by the future, the present is judged according to its ability or inability to realize that future, then hope and grace are reserved only to those things which have the "potential" to reach from the present into the future.

This is all quite technical, perhaps, but I think it's important for youth ministry. Many times in youth ministry we get caught up in the present, desperately grasping for the future. We set goals and standards by which we can measure our success. We measure the success of our ministries according to their ability to develop kids into spiritually mature adults. The future, rather than authoritatively proclaiming the value and dignity of the present on its own terms, becomes that thing toward which the present is doomed to strive.

My hunch is that when our goals rule our ministries, we are subtly and perhaps ironically not giving the future the authority it deserves. My hunch is that when ministry is about extending and developing the present into the future we imagine for it, whether or not that future is Biblical, then it's actually the present which is getting the real authority. The present is imposing itself on the future, reaching toward and imagined future, rather than the other way around.

The Christian hope for the future is not the extension of the present into the future. It's not about progress--neither through "stages of life" or "stages of faith." Christian hope is resurrection hope. As Jürgen Moltmann has written,  Christian hope “...sees in the resurrection of Christ... the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth.” It's not the preservation of the good parts of the present. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the future resurrection of the "very earth on which his cross stands," not just the parts of earth that aren't subject to death.

The present must not be abandoned to the future. It must not be judged according to its potential to extend itself into a future which corresponds to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is, in fact, nothing that has that kind of potential, so we'd actually be selling the future short in doing so anyway. We must be able to see the present in its own dignity, with all its faults and virtues, aside from whatever goals we may have for it. Only then can the future say what it must say about that present. Only then can everything be made new, even those parts of creation which do not have the potential to defeat death. Only then can we begin to identify the the world as it is according to what it will become with the grace required of us to do so. What we must do is liberate the future from the myth of progress and allow God's future to speak to the dark and unexposed parts of the preset. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Christian Arrogance and Godly Power

"If the decline of the Church is ultimately caused neither by the irrelevance of Jesus, nor by the indifference of the community, but by the Church's failure to respond fast enough to an evolving culture, to a changing spiritual climate, and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, then that decline can be addressed by the repentance of the Church." (Mission-Shaped Church, 14)
We Christians are an arrogant tribe. It's proven every day by complaints about the public school system and accusations of the backwardness of "culture" contributing to the decline of the church's numbers and influence. It's before us with every Fox News report on the "War on Christmas." In a culture that, historically, has so privileged Christianity that not even a political election can be won without the candidate at least pretending to be a Christian, we still think we're the victim of society. In this country, every time we place the blame on the people who don't go to church for not going to church, and every time we present ourselves as a persecuted minority, we reveal our arrogance, our privileged entitlement to be the dominant voice and to set the terms for every engagement. Regardless of the fact that, sure, we did used to have more influence, the underlying (and often subconscious) assumption that the church should have the power in America is nothing but arrogance.

Drawing from the church's own normative theological sources (particularly the Bible), such arrogance is incompatible with Christianity in the first place. We value power, we value authority, but the only kind of power and authority the church (if it is the church of Jesus Christ) should value is the power and authority of Jesus--a power revealed in the weakness of self-sacrificial love, an authority demonstrated by the incarnation and the washing of feet. We miss all the irony of mightiness for we lose the fundamental truth "only love is mighty." Eberhard Jungel wrote, “...godly power and godly love are related to one another neither through subordination nor dialectically.... God's lordship is to be understood as the rule of [God's] mercy and God's law is accordingly the law of [God's] grace” (God as Mystery of The World).

Therefore, the terms are set for the church's engagement with the world, not by its own mission or message, but by the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

This kind of mightiness is exemplified in the incarnation in which Jesus comes to us, encounters us, on our own terms and in our own experience. Rather than call the world to ascend to God, God descends to the world. So the church according to the Word of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than calling the world to ascend to it, expecting the world to enter its doors and listen to its voice, must descend to the world and allow the world to set the terms for the church's engagement.

That means then when people stop "coming to church," the primary blame must be placed not on the people who aren't coming, but on the church itself for missing the presence of God outside its walls and outside the presupposed understanding of its mission to the world. By our sense of entitlement to the position of authority in our culture, we have missed our own calling to ministry, our own calling to be the church to the people who don't accept our authority. Rather than telling the story as, "they rejected the church's invitation," we need to start telling the story of the church's failure to see that the invitation itself is to the work that God is already doing in them. We must repent of this failure and begin to look for God in the lives and hearts of the people who have rejected us. In doing so, we may discover that it is we who have rejected them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Good News of Church Decline

I've been gathering a little data for a group with which I'm working, to see if we can't get a bird's-eye view of the state of the church in the United States. Yesterday, I put together a few charts to try to show the general decline or growth of various denominations over the years. Taking data from The Association of Religion Data Archives and other places, I put together a list of denominations in the U.S. and tried to compare their growth and decline since the 1980's (pretty much since I was born). I left out some denominations whose overall membership were so small or so large that they threw off the scale (for example, I left the ELCA off, since their numbers were so much larger but their decline followed pretty much the same pattern as the ABC and the UCC). I was also pleased to discover that some denominations are actually growing--generally very small Evangelical denominations (such as the Evangelical Free Church) as well as the Unitarian Universalist denomination (which is, ironically, similar in size and following the same pattern as most conservative Evangelical denominations). The data can be found just by browsing the ARDA website, but here's what the charts look like when you just lay them out.

Of course, charts can be manipulated to make things look better or worse than they actually are. I did my best to keep things objective. And I don't know what your reaction is, what you might have expected, but I was actually less discouraged than I had expected to be. The mainline churches in America aren't falling into the pits at the rate that I might have expected. The UMC's decline looks the most drastic, but even it hasn't fallen below 7 million members nationwide. The data doesn't seem to support the perception that the church is going to die within the next ten years. The decline is relatively mild... indeed, some mainline denominations have even experienced growth spurts over the decades, and at least one has actually grown since 1980 (the AME denomination). Many smaller denominations are growing steadily, and I imagine that non-denominational churches are likely following similar patterns.

As a student at a Mainline (PCUSA) seminary, and as a Member In Discernment in a Mainline (UCC) denomination, I hear a lot about the decline of the church. The consensus seems to be that the church's future is bleak, if not totally hopeless. Going by the way some people talk about it, I had expected to see those lines on the graph pointing almost vertically down to the right. But the actual numbers just don't seem as hopeless as the rhetoric. I'm not saying that there's blue skies ahead. Not at all. I'm not promoting optimism. We need to take the present realities seriously and be realistic. But it's very realistic to consider the possibilities to which the future is open in the provisionality of the present. There certainly is a decline occurring in American church membership, and there's certainly a need for people to think creatively and theologically about what our response might be and what a solution might look like (assuming we agree that it's a problem that people aren't going to church... which I don't necessarily presume). But what I'm saying is that the decline need not create panic. Urgency is fine, but it's pointless to freak out just yet. It can be debated whether or not we have the appropriate funding to continue as we are, but in terms of membership, the church seems at least to be doing ok (and people are more important than funding).

So since we don't have to panic yet... since we're still going to have people in the pews this Sunday, let's stop and think about this Mainline decline phenomenon. Why is it happening? Is it really a problem? Will it stop? Why do churches on the left (the UU church, for example) and on the right (the PCA, for example) of us seem to be growing?

Let me suggest two responses to this phenomenon which may point to some answers to these questions.

1) The Church is not conventional anymore. Unfortunately, it's not because the church has awaken to the unconventionality of the gospel itself. It's not because we embody the radicality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church should have never been conventional in the first place, had it really understood its own message. But the church is becoming less conventional because conventionality itself is becoming less conventional. Church used to be that thing you did when you were a kid and continued to do once you had your own kids. It used to be just one component of being a good American citizen. That's not the case anymore. The conventional lifestyle no longer assumes that "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage." People wait longer to get married, they wait longer to have kids, and they find their identity in all different places, not just in family and church life. Church is no longer 'just something you do.' This is one reason why we might look at this Mainline decline more as an opportunity than as a threat. The church is now being stripped from its confusion with American identity. Going to church is no longer part of being a good American. This affords the church the opportunity to wholeheartedly agree with this perception, to say out loud that the gospel is not conventional and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to own the prophetic voice of critique and speak truth American power. We can be clear that the Kingdom of God is not America and that Christianity is not about what America is about. By being disconnected from convention, we can be the radical witnessing community of the reign of God which we are gathered and sent out to be. This divorce of the church from the American perception of conventionality may itself be a present (but provisional, of course) anticipation of God's reign in the world.

2) Our society is becoming more inclusive of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. This is a less directly
connected observation, so it requires a little more explanation. Why should the acceptance of LGBTQ people contribute to the decline of Mainline denominations (especially those that seem now to be coming around to the same position)? The connection between the discrimination that LGBTQ people have experienced in American history and the traditional position of the church on this is undeniable. Whether we like it or not, the traditional American presumption against the inclusion of these people is predominantly a religious one. When the church was pretty much part of what it meant to be a good American, Americans took their cues regarding sexuality from the church, and the church was still pretty sure that the Bible was against homosexuality. Now that we've moved away from the church as conventional, people no longer feel they need to take their cues from the church on this issue, so they're becoming more inclusive (how sad it is that leaving the church has made America more accepting!). But why haven't inclusive denominations (such as the UCC and the PCUSA) grown along with this change? Perhaps the answer is this: too little, too late. America found that is could be inclusive without the church, so the churches that identify themselves by their inclusiveness aren't really giving people a reason to show up on Sunday, even if they are giving people a reason to like them. They still aren't distinct from the conventionality that so many Americans are abandoning. Evangelical and Unitarian churches, however, are growing precisely because of their distinctiveness. Unitarian Universalists are distinct in that they represent a spirituality that is intuitively and essentially inclusive. Inclusivity of LGBTQ people (not to mention theological and spiritual diversity) in Mainline Christianity, as American Mainline church history seems to suggest, is somewhat counter-intuitive and external to the dogmatism that seems to sit closer to the center of its essential nature. Evangelicals (the conservative kind we're talking about) are distinct in that they seem to be "holding their ground" in opposing the inclusion of LGBTQ people and maintaining the simplicity of a biblicist dogmatism in which you can "know" the truth. I imagine that these conservative Evangelical denominations are picking up many of the crumbs from the Mainline table, enlisting many of those who aren't yet ready to embrace the complexity of diversity toward which culture and many Mainline churches are moving. Conservative Evangelicalism will be appealing to people who aren't moving along with the society on this issue. This is not to suggest that this is the only reason that Evangelical churches are growing, it's not as though they're just filling up with everyone who's too homophobic to accept a gay pastor, in fact, I imagine that there are a lot of more positive reasons, but it does demonstrate one possibility regarding the Mainline church's decline. Again, we can be encouraged by this. For we are afforded the opportunity to take a close look at ourselves, to learn from our own message, and to identify ourselves not by the inclusiveness which is, thank God, becoming more normative in our society, but, even better, by the distinctiveness of the gospel itself (which will challenge all those things which do not correspond to the gospel, including exclusivity). We can say with confidence that the inclusion of LGBTQ people is indeed an element of God's reign in the world, whether or not it contributes to the growth or decline of church attendance.

So all this is to suggest that we don't need to panic because the Mainline church is shrinking. In fact, we have reasons to be thankful that it is! We have reasons to affirm the good reasons that people are leaving the church and to claim those reasons, not as possessions of the church or grounds in themselves for people to go back (although some of that might be in there), but as elements and aspects of the Kingdom to which the church is only a witness. By looking soberly upon the declining church, we are reminded to hope not for the future of the church but to hope instead in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Our future, whether we grow or not, is God's future (hint: it includes the salvation of the world and God's becoming "all in all")... and it is to that future that we are ultimately called to be faithful.