Friday, January 25, 2013

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.

The pastor is now going to atone for his unpastoral acts, including the fact that he feels so much better.....


  1. Windhorse9:25 PM

    Somebody should nail this righteous rant to a church door somewhere, maybe a lot of church doors. I volunteer to find 94 more good ones in the archives for purposes of historical continuity.

  2. "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."

    I've just this week come to the conclusion that there is so much atheist hate talk on the blogs because it's a near sure way to rack up a high hit count, it's hate talk radio with text and without a broadcast license. Hatin' on religion, edifying the anti-religious with assurances they're the smart, "reality based" people instead of the poopy-faith heads sells to a significant - but who knows how large - segment of the blogging class. Just as Osteen and others find a sure fire line welcome by another segment of the population. Just as the atheist "reality based" line is typically a mix of lies to half truths mixed with self-congratulations and hate, none of it has to be based in the truth. Osteen's "christian" message doesn't have anything to do with Jesus or his earliest followers (held all things in common and gave to those in need).

    The real Notre Dame football scandal, that the REAL DEAD WOMAN RAPED BY A FOOTBALL PLAYER AND PRESSURED INTO SUICIDE, shows that even mainstream Christianity is frequently a celebration of a violent, objectifying, misogynistic milieu held by tradition and profitability to be reconcilable to Christianity when it so obviously is a negation to it.

    As so often Jesus was ahead of us in that he warned many are called and few chosen (or choose to really do it) and that there would be false prophets.

    I do think that the decline in influence of the liberal protestant churches is one of the larger catastrophes of the past century. It has been one of the strongest bases of political liberalism. I don't think political liberalism can survive without it. And I'm not a protestant.

  3. Windhorse--thank you.

    TC--I agree with the importance of liberal protestantism, and the fact it is in such sharp decline is, to me, highlighted by the case of Aaron Swartz. The system that caught him up is only interested in punishment, not in justice (which requires mercy, which the law does, or at least can, recognize) or rehabilitation (an idea prompted, so I understand, by the Quakers, in the 19th century). Of course, abolition was, by and large, a religious movement, as was the civil rights movement of the '60's.

    It might be interesting to consider how other movement since have sputtered because they tried to ape that success, without the religious roots. And the hottest fight for gays seems to be in the churches, now; for marriage as well as ordination.

    Perhaps that's overstating it a bit, in an effort to make a point. It is a complex issue, though, and it needs many voices in it if anything is to be gained from the discussion.

  4. A bit off topic and don't know if I've mentioned it here before, but I happen to know an Osteen fan. She watches him, if you'll pardon the pun, religiously: not because she agrees in any way with his theology (or she wouldn't if she actually cared to think about it), but because she desires a religious experience and is not in any shape to get herself to church on her own and is too proud to ask for or even accept help with transportation. And of the TeeVee evangelists, at least Osteen doesn't spend too much time railing against gays, which would turn her (an early supporter of LGBTQ rights) off.

    RMJ, if you were to dress up like a used car salesman and sound like a good ol fashioned preacher and had a nationally syndicated religious show at church time on Sunday, I'm sure she'd watch your show because she'd prefer your politics to Osteen's. But since you don't have a show, she's watching Osteen.

    But to take this back to being on topic, I don't know how much of Osteen's audience really cares about his views on gays or even about his "prosperity gospel" (or his take on it). His popularity no doubt is a cultural and social phenomenon independent of any theology or moral beliefs on his part.

    Btw as you certainly know, this post, with a few changes could be written about a conservative/masorti shul thinking of re-affiliating as orthodox or, well probably about any religion. Although a lot us Jews somehow forget the trends in attendance at liberal vs. fundamentalist shuls just echo larger trends ...

  5. DAS--

    Your last point was certainly what I was going for; glad I got there.

    The point about Osteen's popularity is certainly as true. My seminary wanted to put "theologians in the pulpit," as they put it to me. I eventually realized that's the last thing congregations were interested in. Mostly, they wanted somebody entertaining who would give them what they expected as a "religious experience."

    Which is my personal problem with churches now. I, too, want the "religious experience." But what I think that is, and what everyone else thinks that is, are two VERY different things. And I'm finding them equally difficult to reconcile.

  6. Windhorse1:52 PM

    I, too, want the "religious experience." But what I think that is, and what everyone else thinks that is, are two VERY different things. And I'm finding them equally difficult to reconcile.

    I know it might be personal but could you elaborate on what that religious experience means to you? I ask because I find myself in a minority position as well on this matter and I'm wondering if what, if any similarities, there might be in our desires for an ideal church service?

  7. I'll try to elaborate (later) in a blog post, but in brief: I've become a stout traditionalist in terms of worship. I prefer liturgical worship tied to a liturgical calendar. Too much of Protestant worship is either anti-RC in tradition (!), or just dependent on the personalities of the worship leaders. Liturgical worship gives me an anchor (the calendar) and a sense of transcendence (or the better possibility of it) because it is traditional and nothing like what the world offers (too much Protestant worship, especially in mega-churches and TV centered venues, is a TV variety show format).

    The other part would be the spiritual depth/intellectual honesty of the pastor. Most pastors have learned success=pleasing the congregation (or certain members thereof) and they are fain to do that at all costs (I speak broadly and cruelly, and that does mean I'm at all right to do so). I find intellectual paucity in sermons (such as the complete refusal to face the implications of 19th century German Biblical scholarship) to be the equivalent of anyone denying the insights and importance of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.

    I just can't stand it, in other words. I know too much to tolerate timidity and cuteness, and yet I also know why those characteristics are so prized in too many pulpits.

    Now that I've insulted all my friends in ministry....

  8. I do hope you'll forgive me for using your comment thread again to pursue a personal hobby-horse.

    Re: "I find intellectual paucity in sermons (such as the complete refusal to face the implications of 19th century German Biblical scholarship)"

    I have no particular problem with historical scholarship. I studied it in college religion courses almost 40 years ago, and have tried to keep up as best as could be done by an interested non-academic layman. I like history. But its limitations are such that I don't know exactly how it gets worked into homiletics.

    The now-ancient four-source theory of the composition of the Pentateuch, the triumph of the notion of Marcan priority--these things are interesting, but I don't see how they help exegete the text, other than occasionally suggesting the solution to an odd doublet. That one passage might be by the Yahwist, and another from the Priestly source doesn't tell me much what they mean, or how I apply them.

    Unless of course the purpose of the process is to prune it all down. That's where the Jesus Seminar went, of course. Jesus didn't say this, he might have said that, Paul couldn't have written this. But if it doesn't affect the canon, it becomes a purely academic exercise. And if it does affect the canon--well, then it changes a lot, but, so far as I know, no church has yet tossed out most of John's gospel, or cut the Lord's prayer down to, "Father," period.

    Some years ago, I remember hearing a very old priest preach from I Peter, and he was kind of rambling on, and he said, pretty much verbatim, "And here Peter tells us--well, it probably wasn't Peter--that....." I knew pretty much what he meant by that. He knew that there were widespread doubts about Peter's authorship, so he had trouble honestly saying, Peter said this. But his parenthetical--how was the congregation to take that? If Peter's non-authorship meant anything, did it suddenly mean to disregard the passage? What exactly is the point?

    Don't know if that's clear, but I have no idea where one goes with this. "Jesus didn't say this; it was the later Matthean community." So, am I supposed to do what the later Matthean community thought Jesus commanded? Or does it just tell me that I can do what I want (which I could have done anyway, saving myself the trouble of listening to a sermon).

    All this assumes as well that the historical method has actually established any reliable facts. History is a funny thing. I hope to write something about it myself in the coming months. I like history, as I say. I think I've read at least fifty volumes of history in the last decade. But history is a synthesis of relics, and if the relics are few and far between, history becomes a matter of plausible speculation rather than scientific sifting.

    The project to find a historical Jesus has come out just where it came out as summarized by Albert Schweitzer (one of those books I read almost 40 years ago). If there had been one consistent historical Jesus to put over against the Jesus of the gospels he might have been a formidable temptation. But we have escatological Jesuses, Cynic Jesuses, liberal Jesuses, rabbinical Jesuses, Buddhist Jesuses, Magical Jesuses, even Jesus the Greatest Salesman who Ever Lived. If I found the historical argument for one of these portraits convincing I might rest my mind there---though not, I imagine, as a Christian any longer. But there is no control, no real science, not even discipline.

    So, yes, I have no problem with turning our sceptical gaze onto the scriptures. But when I turn that same gaze upon the sceptics, I find much more to doubt. The scriptures are a puzzle, but they have a unity and a power that the various historical solutions lack. So that, in the end, forgive my poor brain, I find St. Matthew more convincing that Robert Funk.