Friday, May 08, 2009

Whose Church Is It, Anyway?

Maybe it's the church I choose. Maybe it's just me.

But thinking about this subject, I realized that, for my entire life, I have always been one of the youngest people in the room in any church I've ever joined or attended. I'm 50 something now, and that has never changed. When I was a child in church, I remember clearly my parents were of roughly the same generation as their friends in church. There were a few people older, but they were a distinct minority. The bulk of the congregants were people of my parents' age. But every church I've attended, visited, or pastored, I've been one of the youngest people there. Consistently.

It didn't used to be this way. It wasn't supposed to be this way. At my age, I should be preaching to my peers. Instead, I'm still preaching to my parents, or people as old as my parents. And most of my peers, like my parents, are set in their ways, and their ways are not the ways of church goers. If they are, they are more likely the ways of the church of their childhood than the church of Bultmann or Crossan or Patterson or Borg or the Jesus Seminar. Or even Niebuhr or Tillich. Certainly not Derrida. Nobody I know knows Derrida. Or Kierkegaard, for that matter.

So some of it is me. Certainly some of it is me. But some of it is the way things are, and the way things weren't supposed to be. True, pastors have always preached to people older than themselves, as well as younger; in that, I'm no exception. But I've never preached anywhere where I wasn't one of the youngest people in the room. And I've only been preaching for about 10 years, now. Which might explain, as much as anything, why young people are leaving the church in droves. It just isn't their place.

What was supposed to bring them back was "popular music." Funny, that's what was supposed to bring my generation back to the church. Yup, that didn't start with Gen X or the rise of the mega-church or the insidious marketing intent of fundamentalist evangelicals. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. Luther's hymns were the popular songs of the day. Wesley's hymns were the same; why do you think they're still so popular now, at least in churches? Shaped note hymnals were wildly popular at one time (I still remember one from my grandparent's church; and yes, they were some of the oldest people in the room in their little church, so long ago now).

I know many churches now use "popular music," but more often than not it's performed music, meant to be watched; not hymn singing, meant to be sung by the congregation. I can only report from video-tape on some of this, and nothing I have to say has the backing of sociological studies, so it may be too narrow a range of experience to mean anything. But the tapes I saw in seminary of the "mega-church" we were told then was the cutting edge of a "new Reformation" (I still cringe for the professor who told me that) showed mostly people my age or older in the "seeker services." Not a lot of young people there; teenagers, 20 year olds. Not the dominant crowd. The "entertainers" on the "stage" (they seemed more that than worship leaders, to me) were young; but that's because they were energetic. People my age could never generate that much energy. And yet, it still didn't do much good.

Then there's the "ghetto" position of "youth minister." Truly large churches, of course, subdivide their ministries into "youth" and "elderly" and "shut in", etc., the better to serve a truly vast community of persons. (Such as my brother in law's church, a large mainline congregation, almost of "mega-church" size. I considered for a moment that his church might point to a myriad of exceptions to my experience; but I've lectured his Sunday school class, and no one in the room was as young as me, including my BIL, who's almost ten years older than I. And he's one of the younger people in the class.) The youth minister is the person who's supposed to keep the youth in church. But again, my experience with churches with "youth ministers" is that it's a second-class position, under the thumb of the ruling powers (Priest, pastor, church council, session, what have you), and their usual tenure is only a few years. They entertain the "youth," but sooner or later get their chain yanked, or find the youth have all gone on to college, never to return, and their novelty has worn off. The last youth minister my daughter knew was fired by the priest, for reasons obscure and irrelevant. The youth understood what it meant: they were being patronized, catered to, and had no voice in the church, and the one person they related to, could be snatched away as easily as a kleenex could be discarded. My daugher drifted away, as did everyone else in her group. So it goes.

Youth groups have been doing that since I was in church. Some youth ministers have the respect of the church and thrive; most don't. Those who do thrive do so by training up the youth in the ways of the adults, making young adults of them as soon as possible. This is not a slight, it's a fact. The churches I've known where youth ministers stayed on were churches where the youth were funneled into the adult church ASAP, and encouraged to think as much like their parents as possible. This is not a complaint, it's admiration, actually. I imagine the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches thrive (inasmuch as they do) in much the same way: by making the children prematurely adults, binding them with ties of loyalty and fealty and confession that, to outsiders, look bizarre and confining but to them are just and good and true.

I do not sit in judgment. My preference is for Taize forms of worship, for liturgical practice and the almost fanatical adherence to the Protestant form of the liturgical calendar (I don't follow saint's days and most feast days). I understand what Merton meant when he said in the monastery he found the "four walls of [his] freedom." I am, in many ways, painfully traditional, and become so more and more as I find in those traditions the living presence of the clouds of witness and all the saints that surround me. Surely those children who were shaped by those churches (mostly Baptist, in my childhood experience) found the same.

All the same, they are a distinct and dwindling minority. If these numbers can be read to show anything, it's that this decline is across the board, not just among "liberal" churches which are "wishy-washy."

That raises another issue, one Anthony McCarthy raised in comments to the post below. I don't think this decline is a result of a cultural conspiracy, but it is the result of a failure of "liberal" churches to take advantage of the vocabulary of the culture for its own benefit. The roots of the church lie in culture. Peter tried to stay true to Jewish/Hebrew culture (it was one becoming the other in his time). Paul took up the culture of the Gentiles. While Peter wore the shoes of the fisherman, Paul won the debate, and long after him Augustine used the language of Plato and the Hellenes to justify his church as the Roman empire, itself in many ways as Greco as it was Roman, fell. Aquinas, several more centuries after, took up the other "wing" of Hellenistic thought, interpreting Christian doctrine in the language of "The Philosopher," Aristotle. Most of Christian theology still alternates between these two poles. But for centuries, the discussion in those terms was the accepted discussion. Luther was a prolific and profound thinker. Melanchtion labored to put Luther's ideas into systematic form, to give them the intellectual armor of rigor and justification within the philosophical and theological framework of the day. Calvin, a lawyer, was fundamentally systematic in his thought, and fundamentally concerned with detailed and careful analyses of every position of his Reformed movement. There is a reason theology was once "the mother of all the sciences," and it is because it was so deeply interwoven into all of European, and Western, thought. It was the fountainhead, the source.

It lost that position, of course, beginning in the Enlightenment, and long and great was the fall of it. One problem is the "death" of metaphysics; a death that may have been prematurely announced. One response was to declare the "death of God," not because theologians decided to side with Nietzsche, but because they wanted to see what would really happen to theology if they took that stance.

Nothing. Nothing happened. Despite the attention of TIME magazine, no one noticed. But it is clear that Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall, and no one has put Humpty together again. Yet faith persists. It could almost be a mystery.

But the mystery is not the persistence of faith: it is the lack of a vocabulary for talking about religious belief. William James could do no better than to call them "living options" for those who believe. Rudolf Bultmann began the purge by arguing against what he labeled "primitive mythology," but that did more to darken counsel by words without knowledge (Job 38:1) than anything else, and set us all down rabbit trails trying to distinquish "mythology" from "confessional narratives." Enter Paul Ricouer, who helped as much as he hurt (mostly because he's so difficult to understand and, unlike Aquinas, we have yet to decide whether to absorb his observations, or not.) Paul Tillich could do no better than to speak of our "ultimate concern," a term so vague and amorphous it never caught on, and probably led directly to the far more existential and concrete "Death of God" movement (which never felt so well, itself). Ironically, the most popular contribution to our theological discourse has been Reinhold Niebuhr's "Serenity Prayer" (which he discarded almost as soon as he had used it) and his concept of "Moral Man and Immoral Society" (which has inspired Andrew Bacevich, but almost no one else. And it is easy, in the use Bacevich makes of it, to forget Niebuhr was an ordained pastor, the identity he clung to all his life.). This is the central dilemma of Protestantism: if the culture no longer supports your enterprise, do you any longer have an enterprise?

And if it doesn't support it any longer, here and now, at this time, part of the reason for that is that my parents are still alive.

As are most of their generation. By the time my father was my age, his parents were dead; and the cohort of the elderly was small. Now Baby Boomers are nearly elderly, and while demographically the middle-aged and elderly may be the smaller portion of the population, in the churches they dominate. The numbers of young people no longer going to church will tell you that much. And if the younger cohort won't attend church because they see nothing in it for them (for any number of reasons), how does the church continue? Where are the churches for the 20 and 30 year olds? Where are the churches where 40 is old, as in the churches of my youth? The Baby Boomers were supposed to have changed everything, but it was the "Greatest Generation" that returned from war and flooded the churches in numbers never before seen in American history. And they are still there.

It's an interesting problem. In a culture that makes the independence of youth paramount (especially when they are free to spend money!) and emphasizes the importance of the "teen years" as the years when one is most free (and most especially free to spend money, since we expect the parents to pay for the necessities for teens), and in a church (Protestantism) so closely tied, so dependent on, the culture for its very existence: that same church (I cannot speak for Catholics or the Orthodox Christians) cannot, has not, found a way to provide an institution devoted solely to the needs and interests of the dominant demographic of modern society.

And it stands perplexed as to why that group is turning away from it in such numbers. So it goes.*

*I have, in fact, said a lot about this. I'm sure I'll say a lot more, before it's over. And yes, I know this takes us very close to Christ and Culture territory. Maybe we should go there, too.

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