Trampling on the grass
One of the interesting quandaries of First Presbyterian Church (and churches everywhere which worry about what their attendance figures mean) is the concern with declining church attendance in their denomination (I have no insight on whether FPC has suffered any decline in membership, attendance, or baptisms in its entire history. It would be interesting to know.).
First, of course, is the question: what does this have to do with anything? Is an increased attendance a sign the Holy Spirit is moving in your church? What of churches which not only ordain gays and lesbians, but espouse gay marriage? Shouldn't they be failing because the Holy Spirit is not with them? I don't want to turn this into a numbers war, but I know of several Open and Affirming (ONA: "ONA is the designation for congregations and other institutions of the United Church of Christ which make public statements of welcome for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities") churches in the UCC which are doing quite well. Shouldn't they be failing, instead?
So what does growth or decline prove about any congregation, or any denomination? Churches are especially tripped up by the buildings they own. I visited several UCC churches in the St. Louis area which were suffering with being in neighborhoods no longer congenial to them. There was, in particular, a church which had once been the church of mayors of St. Louis, and governors of Missouri. They still had their own china and silver (sterling), with the church name on all the pieces. Their decline was due to demographics and the emptying out of St. Louis into the suburbs, with radical and rapid change in the neighborhood around them. The carriage trade that attended that church simply moved away and never came back. The decline in the congregation was an accident of history, not theology. The last church I pastored had a membership of about 150, and worshiped in a space built to house twice that many (and about 75 showed up on a regular basis). Why? Largely because the neighborhood that built that church had moved away, and the people around it now were Mexicans or Vietnamese or Korean or African-American, or just not interested in an old country church with a mammoth sanctuary next to a graveyard. By a weird happenstance the buildings were so situated on the road that it was (and is) easy to drive by without even noticing the place. So it was, in many, many ways, simply passed by. Changes in theological outlook changed far more slowly there than did the demographics around it. Perhaps the Holy Spirit wasn't interested in non-white non-Germans for that building?
I know, I know; pastors aren't supposed to ask such pointed questions. Let's move on.
So is congregation growth a sign of blessing, or of expediency? I still like Matt Taibbi's description of Joel Osteen:
Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor," and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.He also sums up Mr. Osteen's "theology" very well. No doubt about it, Mr. Osteen runs a burgeoning enterprise, and I'm told people fly in from around the world to hear him in person on Sunday mornings. His teachings are not exactly in keeping with the Reformed tradition, however. But doesn't his success speak, somehow, to the decline of denominations like the PCUSA? Is his example one that FPC Houston should emulate?
I can think of several reasons why not, but none of them have to do with Mr. Osteen's success in filling seats for his performances.
Again, I know; pastors are not supposed to be so blunt. Let's keep going.
Last, but not least (to make my third point and so get my sermon fully underway), how much of the emphasis on growth is rooted in the scriptural witness, and how much is rooted in modern culture? True, the Catholic church once boasted a membership of every person in Europe; but to this day, if I understand correctly, to be born Catholic (or rather, baptized Catholic) is to be considered Catholic until death (at least as far as the church membership is calculated). Not that Protestant churches are all that good at keeping a sound headcount, nor guilty of listing numbers that might well be inflated. My last parish (again!) officially considered itself 150 (or so) strong. Yet many of those people hadn't darkened the church door in decades, or were considered members despite their absence because they were "family" of one kind or another. And no one really wanted to do the dirty work of cleaning up the membership rolls (why give yourself more reasons to despair?), much less cross swords with "family" members who were still "church members" because, well, they were family.....
But where in the New Testament does it say "Thou shalt keep true and accurate membership records, and by the size of thy membership rolls shall thy faith be known"? And yet, with FPC Houston as our example, 2 of the four (and ostensibly, 3 of the 4) talking points for why they should leave the PCUSA, have to do with declining membership, because....well, I suppose rats leaving a sinking ship is an unkind conclusion to draw, so maybe it's because declining membership clearly means the Lord (!) is no longer with us.
I guess, by the way, God is still with Mr. Osteen and with Rick Warren, though neither seem to get the headlines they once did. I don't know if PR is a gift of the Holy Spirit or not, but I'd be interested in what the people who think church membership = God's favor, think. No, I really would. I'd like to understand the reasoning that concludes losing members means God has turned God's (figurative) back on a denomination, and not that the denomination has turned its (figurative) back on God. I'm not judging, but after all, fair's fair. If you consider one alternative, you have to give due consideration to the other.
That fundamentalist and evangelical and strictly conservative churches boast growth does not, for me, equate to theological or even doctrinal soundness. Rather, it looks to me like the triumph of culture over religion. Most Americans thinks of church as either the Roman brand, with censers and priests and chanting, or as Bible thumpers shoving peoples heads under water in rivers and praising Jeebus to the skies. The tent revival and the hell fire and brimstone preachers is as cultural as apple pie and green suburban lawns. Most people couldn't tell you what a revival is, or what purpose it is supposed to serve, but they are quite sure that's the "ol' time religion" and either they studiously avoid it, or they quietly long for an experience so passionate and fervid.
Well, among some who are, or want to be, Christians, anyway.
I'm saying nothing against Kathleen Norris or Anne Lamott or many other mainline believers like me, who don't go in for such emotional pyrotechnics and spiritual iron maidens. I'm just saying that, as a culture, our idea of religion is either a rigid Roman Catholicism that doesn't have a lot to do with reality, or a fervent fundamentalism that most of us don't even begin to understand, but think is the "real deal" because, well, it's religion as we know it; at least in America. At least that's what we think it is; and all the bestsellers by Ms. Norris or Ms. Lamott have not so much as made a dent in that perception.
And that religion, more often than not, reassures us, especially the "us" who to go to the Museum District of Houston every Sunday morning, that we are extra special in God's eyes, and God wants us to keep on keepin' on just the way we always have, and even if the issue isn't really about same-sex marriages which, thank God!, we don't approve of in Texas or in our denomination (not yet, anyway!), we still can't see why God wants us to allow gays and lesbians to be our deacons and elders and....gasp! PASTORS! 'Cause guldurn it we really wouldn't mind if the pastor were black (though probably not if a black tried to be OUR pastor), because black is okay now, but dammit, homosexuality is a sin, and we're agin it!
Even though, by definition and Reformed tradition and theology, all persons are sinners and are constantly in a state of sin and while they may only be saved by the grace of God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and maybe even none of our pastors are ever gonna be among the Elect (who knows? And when did we jettison the Reformed tradition of pre-destination, anyway?), and while they, being human, live in a state of sin, GODDAMMIT HOMOS IS GROSS AND WE AIN'T GONNA HAVE ONE IN OUR PULPIT, AND THAT'S THAT!!!!!!!
Which is probably more true to the motivating sentiment than not, when you get right down to it. All the baggage about homosexuality and sin doesn't really add up unless you think homosexuality is an extra-special evil sin that negates the Holy Spirit calling a gay or a lesbian to the ordained ministry. Now, what that has to do with declining membership or baptisms in the PCUSA, I'll leave to you to figure out. But I think it has bugger all to do with tradition or theology, neither of which, I'll warrant, most of the good people of FPC Houston would know if it walked into their church and sat down among them on any given Sunday morning.
One last word on this topic of tradition and Reformed theology. It's a little bit of applied theology from a denomination that had a double dose of the Reformed traditions in its heritage, and understood both the power and the responsibilities of that tradition, as well as its limitations. They put it very nicely into a prayer the whole congregation could recite, on certain occasions. Part of it went like this:
Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.That's a very hard prayer when taken seriously. But it's also very hard, I think, to be a faithful Protestant (at least) Christian, and not take it seriously.
HEAR OUR PRAYER, O LORD.
The pastor is now going to atone for his unpastoral acts, including the fact that he feels so much better.....