At RNS, Tom Ehrlich takes his turn at Ross Douthat’s misreading of the American religious climate. I think he’s a good bit closer to the mark in suggesting that Christianity is in decline because it is too conservative (in actual sense, not the ideological). The postwar (1945-date) world changed and most churches declined to change with it. Or, if they did alter practices, it was with the firm intent to keep both feet planted in a comfortable neighborhood plot. Rev. Ehrlich even suggests that the Episcopal Church’s recent endorsement of a liturgical blessing for same-sex marriage is consonant with a timid approach:
The Episcopal Church’s decision on same-sex blessings wasn’t a leap beyond; it was the last gasp of old ways of thinking, namely, that Sunday worship and in-house protocols are what matter.
Hmm. What do you make of that?
Even as women were entering other male bastions, conservatives resisted opening ordination to women. Even as new cultural languages and forms were emerging, conservatives fought any adaptation of mainline liturgies and hymnody. As people sought new expressions of faith in response to changing times, traditionalists mocked “renewal” as “happy-clappy.”
It was those fights that drove people away. It was also the looking-backward attitudes that prevented church leaders from responding to cultural shifts, many of them painful, such as decimation of the middle class, collapse of disposable income for all but the very wealthy, collapse of employment and safety nets, and eroding infrastructure such as public schools.
In time, many mainline Protestant churches became precious enclaves of old people doing old things. We were still arguing about paint colors when people needed us to help them find new purpose and confidence.
My sense is that there’s a significant kernel of truth in this. Most Catholics I know are totally ignorant of the propers-versus-the-world debate. And perhaps there’s too much pragmatic acceptance of “what works” in the Catholic musical world. They don’t see the chanted propers as significant to the real world problems of living the Christian life. What they do see as helpful is the placement of the Scriptures sung on the tongues of people not only in their Sunday best, but when the weekday worst is upon them, in the workplace, the neighborhood, and even in the family where the real struggles of life are found. This would be the reason why I feel I can support chant as a valid theory, but remain a skeptic on how it is preached. This is ultimately why the popular slogan pretty much has it backwards. It is in saving the world (engaging in a radical and enthusiastic evangelism) that one will save the liturgy (and the church in which it is housed). To be clear: the Church exists for one purpose: to evangelize and to complete the mission of Christ. I would have to totally reject the magic pill theology represented by an extreme focus on the red-n-black.
Does that mean the building interior goes unpainted? When there is need, of course not. The difference is that it does not consume our energies.
Neither do Douthat and Murdoch’s mouthpieces understand the present moment. Mainline Protestant church leaders are finally getting ready to do what they should have been doing for 50 years, namely, looking outside their walls at a deeply troubled world, resolving to turn their congregations toward being responsive and effective, and allowing young adults into leadership.
My own sense is that Catholic vitality in the 60’s and 70’s was achieved, or perhaps more likely, maintained, by the infusion of young adults into leadership. I missed most of those times being a bit younger and on a different life track. But by the time I was in graduate school in the 80’s, and later getting involved peripherally beyond the parish, I encountered something of that reforming barrier. Many of my peers weren’t that much older than I, but there was a very definite line between those born in the forties and early fifties, and those who did not remember the days before Vatican II.
I had to laugh at one parishioner who thought I had the perfect experience and skill set as I was finishing up my Masters’ degree. She thought my openness to new music would attract youth. (Little did she know that pop music in the late 80’s had moved on from guitars to metal and hip-hop.) And I was prepared theologically in ways that were not open to lay people in “her” day. (Did I note a wistfulness about that?) After about three dozen applications and about a dozen interviews in five months, I was preparing to go back to school for my MDiv, when I got a call from a priest who had mistreated so many staff members that he had to offer a job on three days’ notice to someone half a continent away.
All that aside, you can understand why I’m thrilled my new parish has absorbed three new staff members all under the age of thirty. And for us, that’s just the tip of the berg. We have thirteen peer ministers, nearly thirty small group leaders, and an openness by the very definition of our mission, to give young adults genuine responsibility.
Rev Ehrlich again:
Conservatives will find themselves ignored, not because mainline traditions have lost their way, but because they are determined to find their way, and my-way-or-the-highway conservatives have cried wolf too often.
Well, not all conservatives. Ross Douthat considers us a nation of heretics. If one stakes one’s flag on small-town, main street American religion, then certainly, we’ve grown up and left that setting behind. It’s part of the natural development of our culture. And whether we like it or not, religious people will have to adapt to it. Some conservatives will be successful, because they will wake up and engage the Great Commission and do it with everybody, even the young, and yes, even the liberals.
But there’s no way that Christian decline is a function of left/right ideology getting it right/wrong.