Thursday, July 19, 2007

Speaking the Truth

From Tom Ehrich in Episcopal Life:

...Religion, while claiming to be in the "truth" business, seems more concerned with preserving its franchise through selective interpretations of Scripture, resisting science, seeking political allies, and telling congregants what they want to hear.

With membership declining in most historic denominations -- and with partisans using those declines to bash each other, rather than to contemplate fresh approaches -- it can seem prudent to give truth-telling a rest. It's a rare preacher who will tell the truth to people wanting comfort, especially when probing for truth leads inexorably away from the false certainties of doctrine and institution and toward self-examination and self-sacrifice...

...Religion must stop making franchise-protection its top priority and partisan shouting its preferred voice. Religion's staying in business means little if it cannot speak the truth boldly. Part of boldness is seeing the gray areas, seeing the ambiguities and emulating Jesus in valuing parable over law.

Speaking with false certainty, just because people crave certainty, trivializes the religious enterprise and underestimates the faithful. We, in turn, must seek that maturity which doesn't need false certainty...
Time for a little self-examination, specifically in regards to our loss of members, and even more specifically, in regards to membership decline within the Episcopal Church.

Keep in mind that most causes are over-determined. No doubt there are multiple reasons for our decline. I'm going to speak from my experience, then invite you to share yours, and conclude with a question.

I am old enough to remember a time when the social mores were such that everyone went to church on Sunday. If you didn't, your neighbors would talk about "those heathens" next door. Not a good way to climb the social ladder.

Some time during the 60s, those mores shifted. It became acceptable to sit on the patio and read the Times instead of bundling the family off to church. Even a game of golf became an acceptable alternative to sitting in a stuffy church listening to yet another boring sermon. The dead wood dropped off. Those who were going to church simply for appearances quit going.

That explanation is not to completely let the church off the hook, however. No doubt that because of their apparent success, many churches got too comfortable, and lost their challenging edge.

The result of the dead wood dropping off was that church participation became redefined as a voluntary activity. It has always been such, but the shift in mores made this more apparent than it had been in past decades. This led to a view of potential members (often referred to by the most unflattering label, "the unchurched") as consumers. Churches became extremely competitive. In response, some accepted this label, and, as all good consumers are prone, began "church shopping." Denominational loyalty became a thing of the past, with families seeking the church that would give them the biggest bang for their buck.

In a scramble to respond to this new mentality, churches began to quickly grab the latest gimmick (often packaged as "programs") to attract new members. Which reinforced the consumer mentality, with the church offering a "product" that they must "sell" to the public.

Before even mentioning our most recent history, let me just comment on the above, which I would suggest outlines some of the causes for our steady decline up to at least the early 90s. Note that nowhere in the above have I mentioned God, Jesus Christ, scripture or the creeds. Of course, a relationship with the living God is our intended "product." But in this new consumer mentality, such matters seem often to become secondary to rears in the pew.

Does that seem harsh? Maybe it is. Here's my concern; to what degree can we respond to the "felt needs" of those coming through our doors at the expense of "real needs"? As Ehrich puts it; "Religion, while claiming to be in the 'truth' business, seems more concerned with preserving its franchise through selective interpretations of Scripture, resisting science, seeking political allies, and telling congregants what they want to hear."

Let me say it even more radically. I don't think church has much of anything to do with what people think they "want." I think it has everything to do with offering our praise and thanksgivings to God.

So, there's the tension. How do we invite those seeking God to become a part of our communities, without losing our focus on God? Or, put another way, how do we live out both the vertical (love God) and horizontal (love neighbor) dimensions of the cross?

Now, regarding our most recent decline. Keep in mind that many of the numbers tossed around are less than accurate. But in an effort to speak the truth, we need to admit that the Episcopal Church is losing members, at an alarming rate. And that loss seems to be accelerating.

Is this the result of our support of women's ordination, contraception, and, in some cases, divorce and remarriage? Partially. Those that seek certainty are uncomfortable with TEC's willingness to grapple with the gray areas of life.

Is our current decline the result of the consecration of Gene Robinson and the upheaval that has resulted within the Anglican Communion? To some degree, yes. About one half of 1% of our membership has left over this. But, it seems to me, these departures are unique, for a number of reasons.

They are unique in that, for the first time in my memory, there is a small group of Episcopalians that have launched a very aggressive and mean-spirited attack on the Church. They have used blatant lies, half-truths, and the most ugly words to convince our members, and our potential members, that we are not Christians. Here is but one example of this attack. This propaganda has been accepted as truth by some, resulting in their decision to leave, or continue to church shop.

We have foreign Anglican leaders setting up shop within TEC. This is also a new innovation. What this has done is to allow those who are in disagreement with their bishop to have a new option available to them. Being able to jump ship so easily has resulted in a lack of a serious attempt at reconciliation among members and their bishop. Susan Russell offers us a good example of one case in which the attempt to be reconciled was abruptly cut off as a result of foreign leaders prowling the perimeter.

Another reason for our current losses is defined by Ehrich in this way: "Religion must stop making franchise-protection its top priority and partisan shouting its preferred voice." Who wants to join a church that seems to consider "holy wars" to be its primary inclination? Some have left because they got fed up with all the arguments. To be honest, I can't really blame them.

So, there are a few causes that I suggest are some of the reasons for our loss of members. What additional ones might you add?

What is most important is that we stop denying the truth. We are losing members. It is past time for some honest self-examination about this. If you have not already done so, I highly recommend that everyone get their hands on this booklet; Truth and Hope: A Time of Truth and Hope for the Episcopal Church by Charles Fulton and James Lemler.

Now, let's explore ways that we might reverse this trend. How can we be faithful in our mission to proclaim the Gospel while still responding pastorally to the felt needs of those who enter our doors?

Let's make that into an easier question to answer. In your life, what has drawn you to participate in the life of the Church?


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