Monday, January 29, 2024

Why Conservative Churches are Declining

Two news stories came to my attention this past week. One is the precipitous decline of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention. As an alumnus of the SBC’s flagship seminary, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I keep an eye on what is happening in this denomination. 

Baptisms (which are Southern Baptists’ statistic of choice to assess how they are doing) are less than half what they were at the turn of the century. This happened during the same time that theological conservatives grew in power and influence in the SBC. Likewise membership has been decreasing. In the most recent statistical year (2022) the SBC had the largest numerical drop in membership in a century, with nearly half a million members leaving. They have lost three million members since 2006. That is twice as many as the total membership in my denomination!  

The second religion story in the news is that the so-called “nones” are now the largest "religious” group in the US. “Nones” are those who check “none” when asked their religion. They are the religiously unaffiliated, comprised of atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular." In 2007, nones made up 16% of Americans. Now they are 28%. In comparison, Catholics are 23% and evangelical Protestants 24% of the US population. 

The trend is obvious. Conservative Christians are decreasing rapidly, and nonreligious people are increasing. Conservative churches are heading in the same direction as mainline churches, which have been declining for far longer. Progressive Christian groups are still declining, but not in such huge numbers. For example, the American Baptist Churches, which is a moderate Baptist group, has been pretty steady over the decades, declining slightly. Other mainline Protestants are likewise declining – some more than others.  

Yet the most liberal denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association is bucking the trend somewhat, being about the same as they were fifty years ago. I read a story in the local newspaper the other day about an American Baptist church in a nearby town that was growing. It is one of the most progressive churches in the area. It may be too much to say that liberal churches are growing, but at the moment they are not doing as badly as conservatives.  

Back in 1972 there was a famous book entitled, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion” by Dean M. Kelley. He made the case that people were looking for a clearly defined set of beliefs and values. Those churches that were most demanding of their members were growing. For years conservative churches sang that tune.  

Now the hymnal page has turned, and they are singing a different tune. Now conservative churches are declining as rapidly or more than progressive churches. Conservatives used to look down their noses at liberal churches for their decline, laying the blame on their theology and ethics. Now they are reluctant to apply the same standard to themselves.  

The decline in the influence of Christians in American society is why – in part – evangelicals are crowding onto the Christian Nationalism bandwagon. They are hoping that political power can turn things around where their evangelistic efforts have not been able to do so. Of course the politicizing of the gospel is having the opposite effect, alienating more and more people – especially the young. It does not look good for Christian religion in America – liberal or conservative. 

Yet as I look at the present situation, do not lament the trend. I see God at work in the hearts and minds of people who are leaving the church. People are looking more closely at what they believe ... and don’t believe. They are deconstructing the faith they were raised in (if they were raised in a religious tradition). Upon careful examination, many are deciding that their religious tradition is not true. 

So church decline has little to do with liberal or conservative. It has everything to do with people looking for meaning and purpose, beauty and truth, community and meaningful relationships in life. People are not finding those in churches, so they are looking elsewhere. They are looking to other religious traditions and humanistic philosophies. They are exploring other spiritual practices and beliefs.  

That is a good thing for the church in my opinion. The church is being purified. It is being winnowed of the chaff. John the Baptist proclaimed this message, and I see this divine action happening again today. The church is being forced to examine itself. Hopefully this will result in repentance.  The Christian church has become so attached to its organizational identity, cultural institutions, religious tradition, rituals and riches that it has lost the Pearl of Great Price. That is why people are leaving the church.  

Will the church survive? Almost certainly. God is not finished with it. Yet I foresee the church surviving in a form that we would not recognize today. It will be transformed in ways that we cannot imagine. If it is to survive, it will repent of its theological narrow-mindedness and realize what it has a lot in common with adherents of other religions. It will downplay dogma and recover the spiritual reality at the heart of all spiritual traditions. Some call this the perennial wisdom. If the church has a future, this is it.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Voting Lightly

Today I voted in the New Hampshire presidential primary. I was not looking forward to it. Every other year in my life I have been excited to vote for president. This is especially true of the years I have lived in New Hampshire. Here I get to talk to candidates one-on-one and shake their hands. This time there was no one who inspired me enough for me to travel twenty or thirty minutes to meet them in person.  

I finally settled on a person I could vote for without holding my nose. Now I am waiting to hear the results of the New Hampshire primary, although I suspect I already know the answer to that question. I also suspect I know how the general election will turn out. But I can’t be sure. A lot can happen in the next ten months.  

I am not excited about the choice I will likely face in November. I have no good choice, unless I vote for a third party candidate. I have done that in the pastIn fact I have been a member of two different “third parties” in the last twenty-five years. That is how uncomfortable I am with our two major parties. But that choice comes with its own moral problems. Am I enabling the worst candidate to win?  

The problem with politics is the same problem with all dualistic activities, only made worse by the extremely partisan rhetoric that has become the norm in recent years. Too many people view the world in terms of black and white, red versus blue, us against them. A few politicians see things in shades of grey, but such statesmen and stateswomen are a dying breed.  

I come at it a different way. I see politics from the perspective of spirituality. Not a religious partisanship that equates one’s religion with a particular party or ideological position, i.e., the progressive Christian votes Democrat and conservative Christian votes Republican. I see God transcending this duality.  

I do not see the world in black and whiteNeither do I see it in shades of grey. Certainly not blue versus red! I see this world in shades of light. That light refracts into a marvelous spectrum of color, including both blue and redThe Light of God is overwhelmingly present in all that is. In speaking of the omnipresence of God, the psalmist says: 

Where shall I go from your Spirit? 
    Or where shall I flee from your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! 
    If I make my bed in hell, you are there! 
If I take the wings of the morning 
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 
even there your hand shall lead me, 
    and your right hand shall hold me. 
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, 
    and the light about me be night,” 
even the darkness is not dark to you; 
    the night is bright as the day, 
    for darkness is as light with you. 

The Light of God is present in the whole process. Many religious and political people see everything in apocalyptic terms of good and evil, right and wrong, battling it out in the heavens and on earth. I see God working all things together for Good. If that is true, then we can relax into this overarching reality and vote in faith. The concluding words of Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” come to mind: 

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him [sic] to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.  

So I vote from peace ... for peace ... to make this a more peaceful and beautiful world.  

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Looking For Jesus

It is not easy to find Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible. There are so many of them! Which one is the real one? Or is he a compilation of all of them? There are the four canonical  gospels, each with their distinctive interpretation of Jesus. Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses, the rightful heir of the great Hebrew lawgiver. Mark depicts him as Jesus the Demon-Slayer. Luke pictures him as the Great Physician. John describes him as the Eternal Word made flesh. That is just the four gospels! Then there is Paul’s Jesus and the Jesus of the other epistles, not to mention the gospels that never made it into the Bible. 

I am reading through the four New Testament gospels for the umpteenth time this year, this time reading only the words spoken by Jesus, the so-called “red letters.” In his words I see many other Jesuses. The one I am most attracted to is Jesus as Wisdom Teacher. Jesus as Spiritual Teacher echoes many of the themes of the Wisdom literature in the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus was a mystic who proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is within you. It is here now all around us, if only people open their eyes and see.  

Then there is Jesus as the Social Prophet. He is an ethical teacher that is not so much concerned with individual moral behavior (which he downplays) as he is society’s treatment of the poor, the sick, the outsider, the prisoners, and the immigrants. He echoes themes of the Hebrew prophets Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah. He lambasts the self-righteous religionists of his day and embraces people excluded by the synagogue and temple.  

Another is Jesus the Apocalyptic Preacher, proclaiming the immanent appearance of the Kingdom of God on earth. A lot of his preaching has to do with the end of the age and the breaking in of a new world order. He spoke about an apocalyptic figure known as the Son of Man (traditionally identified with Jesus himself), who would come to dramatically usher in a Reign of Peace on earth. Jesus connects this to the destruction of the temple and signs in heaven and earth.  

Then there are all the modern Jesuses. Jesus the evangelical preacher, saving souls from hell. Jesus the Christian nationalist waving an American flag and wearing a MAGA cap. Jesus the champion of the second amendment, brandishing a semi-automatic weapon. Jesus the progressive Democrat advocating for protecting the environment, democracy, and human rights. There is the Zionist Jesus defending the modern state of Israel. There is the New Age Jesus sitting in the lotus position and meditating.  

So many Jesuses! Which one – or which combination of these many Jesuses - is the real Jesus? And how do we sift through all our personal biases, theological agendas and political biases, to find the authentic Jesus? Biblical scholarship has been trying to do this for centuries and is no closer to a definitive portrait of the historical Jesus. Even the canonical gospels admit that the original disciples did not recognize the risen Christ. How will we recognize him two thousand years later?   

In the end it is not so much about finding the historical Jesus as it is discovering the eternal Christ here nowIt is not about definitively defining Jesus with a list of characteristics and qualities. It is about deconstructing our personal images of Jesus and unknowing what we think we know about him. Only then is Christ freed from the prison of our expectations to be the one that defies all characterizations. In unknowing the historical Jesus we know the risen Christ in our midst.   

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Footprints (Yankee Version)

One night I dreamed I was walking in the snow with the Lord. 

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. 

In each scene I noticed footprints in the snow. 

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints; 

other times there was one set of footprints. 


This bothered me because I noticed 

that during the low periods of my life, 

when I was suffering from 

anguish, sorrow or defeat, 

I could see only one set of footprints. 


So I said to the Lord, 

"You promised me Lord, 

that if I followed you, 

you would walk with me always. 

But I have noticed that during 

the most trying periods of my life 

there has only been one 

set of footprints in the snow. 

Why, when I needed you most, 

have you not been there for me?" 


The Lord replied, 

"The times when you have 

seen only one set of footprints, 

is when I stopped to make snow angels. 

Why didn’t you stop with me? 

You would not have so many low periods in life 

if you stopped to play with me once in a while." 


(Apologies to Mary Stevenson, the author of “Footprints in the Sand. There have been subsequent variations of this popular poem, which are often read at funerals. The original, written in 1936, can be found at this link.)