For background on this debate, read Lisa Miller’s column on the Right Rev. Mariann Budde’s plans to revive the Episcopal Church.
Christianity in Europe and North America is going through its biggest period of institutional redefinition in 500 years, and no one knows where it is headed.
Christianity faces are an increasingly pluralistic world, one more saturated by the day with information, choices and entertainment. The world seems too busy for church life. For nearly 1600 years, churches provided the spiritual infrastructure for neighborhoods and larger communities, but now the stones are cracking and the pews are emptying.
For those of us who believe in this weather-worn container we call “mainline” Christianity, this is a time of reflection and experimentation. Some see this as the moment to rewrite Christian beliefs and take away the strangeness and mystery that claims that “there is another dimension, and it is in this one.” Others believe it’s the very oddness of the claim that God is at work in the cosmos and in our lives that makes Christianity so endlessly beguiling, even when its forms can seem haggard, anti-intellectual, even bullying.
The world needs to see concrete examples of a generous-spirited, intellectually alive, spiritually profound, interfaith sensitive, scientifically open, socially engaged Christianity. And the good news is that there are writers, church leaders and congregations across the theological spectrum giving this voice and face.
Many have thought that the megachurches were the churches’ future as they watched parking lots fit for pro football games fill on Sunday mornings with charismatic pastors, worship with rock bands and large screens, and classes and support groups for every age and interest. The latest studies I have seen suggest that the megachurch ascendancy has been receding, and that these vast complexes are beginning to fade as the way of the future.
In Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, and other mainline churches, “worship wars” have sometimes broken out as pastors introduce new language, furniture arrangements, and music, while many in the pews cling to the stately traditions they have known all their lives. I’m finding that quite a number of young people aren’t drawn to hand clapping and “praise” music and are increasingly intrigued by the beauty and sense of mystery in Gregorian chant and in a traditional Eucharist with hymns, candles, and vestments.
I’m seeing churches growing because they are providing clear, engaging sermons and classes teaching the basics of the faith. I’m seeing urban churches taking on new life as they welcome new immigrant communities in their neighborhoods.
It’s a yeasty time. Christianity is being reinvented. My guess is that it will get smaller for awhile. Many churches built in the religious boom years of the last century will close. There will be tensions between experimenters and traditionalists. Denominational loyalty will continue to fade. But fresh ways of blending the old and the new will continue to emerge. And yet again an ancient protean faith will find new forms.
Samuel T. Lloyd III | Dec 12, 2011 1:51 PM