Charlotte Allen thinks so. But I say hold your apocalyptic horses.
Your average Mr. and Mrs Newlywed Smith who hit town and start church shopping are likely not going to compare the CNA or Fundamentalism Today critiques of mainline churches and hop off to the Tridentine Mass or the Bible Megachurch down the road. My sense is that people who are bothering to go to church are looking for three things:
- Good preaching
- Good music
If some Christians are presenting a tired face on Sunday, complete with cliques, banal preaching and insipid music, then churchshoppers will move on next week. The movement to and from churches is pretty much all a local inspiration. I think ideologues and intentional Christians (liberal and conservative) will gravitate to the churches they know and trust, but they are a slim percentage of the whole. The silent super-majority is mainstream. They don’t care if the denomination accepts gay ministers if they feel welcomed, and get a good worship experience every week. Likewise if they tend to be more liberal, and their denomination or parish is less so, good Sunday experiences offer a counterweight, at least for most people I know. Otherwise, why do conservative Catholics complain so bitterly about the liberal deadweight on the Barque?
Allen thinks conservative churches do well because they make gospel demands on their members. I beg to differ. I think Fundamentalist Christians–who would be heretics in Allen’s eyes, remember–do well with membership numbers because they implement a coherent and clever plan:
- They welcome seekers and make accommodations for them.
- They make few demands–not a lot–on casual Christians who come to check things out.
- They align their worship experiences along cultural lines in musical style and presentation as well as in oratory.
- They cultivate a sense of community as well as ownership. More serious believers have something with which to get involved.
If any parish or denomination wants to grow, it has a simple three-step plan to implement: hospitality, preaching, and music. All else will follow from that. My old home parish of Corpus Christi in Rochester enjoyed a booming membership because it did all three well, but as all St Bloggers know, it was a bastion of liberalism. I know some of you think I’m just tooting liturgy because I’m a liturgist, but it makes more sense to me than Allen’s ideas–which strike me as a little too self-congratulatory.