The facts and figures don’t exactly lay the platform for clergy job security: Sunday attendance in mainline churches is spiraling. Weekly turnout in the United Church of Christ has dropped below a million; the Episcopal Church estimates its population at 1.8 million, down from three million in the 1960s; membership in the Presbyterian Churches of the USA fell by 46% from 1965 to 2005 and the United Methodists have lost 4.5 million in their American churches since 1964. Four thousand churches close each ear and 3,500 people leave the Church each day.
Panic. The sky is falling. Volcanoes are erupting and cities are burning and aphids swarm our gardens.
Or maybe not. A close-up view shows that evangelicals are still faring well (please don’t read that as right-wing-Republican-gay-hater evangelicals: many are not, in fact, Republicans; the vast majority don’t hate gays; they just disagree). And, despite the poo-pooing from many “progressive Christians” (“evangelicals chew on bubble gum Christianity as they hide in their mega-churche cocoons,” or words to that effect), they really are dedicated people. Most are, anyway. I admit that of my tribe even while it frustrates me to no end.
Fact is, many in mainline denominations jettisoned the Scriptures. Fact is, the sermon dwindled to a twenty-minute I’m-okay-you’re-okay pep talk even while the modernists complained of “fundamentalist” shallowness and cultural compromise Fact is, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), the legendary preacher who popularized theological liberalism, was premature when he wrote off traditional theology: “We have already largely won the battle we started out to win; we have adjusted the Christian faith to the best intelligence of our day and have won the strongest minds and the best abilities of the churches to our side. Fundamentalism is still with us but mostly in the backwaters. The future of the churches, if we will have it so, is in the hands of modernism.”
Instead of “adjusting the Christian faith to the best intelligence of our day” (Richard Dawkins? No thanks), a better remedy might be to catch up with the first century. I’m not advocating “fundamentalism,” which is not synonymous with evangelicalism and has morphed into something far different than Fosdick’s day. I am advocating faith in a living God — a God who acts and who has not been caught by surprise. The fruits of such a faith were seen on the Day of Pentecost, which Christians recently celebrated. In my humble opinion, the events of that day reach out from the first century and bear 21st-century relevance. They force us to question ourselves: Do we encourage dreams and visions or do we stifle them? Are we the conduits of blessings or curses? Are we receiving a mocking for which we can be proud?
I preached about catching up to the first century on Pentecost Sunday. Here’s the sermon. Fosdick would not be pleased: