Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The second article is from Christianity Today and it is an interview of Alan Wolfe who is a professor at Boston College. He has written quite a bit on religion and culture in America. While’s he not religious, I think he has a lot of insight into religion, particularly Christianity, at this point in our history. He also wrote a great article that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in October 2000 titled, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.

Anyway, in this interview he argues that our culture has had a much more significant impact on religion (i.e. Christianity) than the other way around. He argues that the most successful churches, which are usually conservative, evangelical mega-churches are succeeding not because of their rejection of modern culture, but rather that they are adapting to cultural changes. In particular he points out our culture’s focus on individuality, tendency towards populism, short attention span, and anti-intellectualism.

Thus, the implication is that people are attracted to these churches not because of good, old-fashioned, strict Christian teaching, but because the format and culture of the church reflect what’s happening in the rest of American society. He doesn’t have, or least doesn’t mention, any quantitative evidence to prove this, but points out that people will switch traditions (e.g. Baptist to Pentecostal) for reasons that have nothing to do with the relative “strictness” of the teaching.

On a related note, he also argues that tradition and doctrine are less important than people think they are. In terms of tradition, people freely and regularly change denominations. People regularly leave, or join, churches with strong traditions without considering that tradition. For instance, the Methodist church is grounded firmly in the Wesleyan tradition, but people regularly walk away from United Methodist Churches for entirely different traditions. He believes that orthodoxy is being replaced with popularity. In terms of doctrine, he points out that many conservative churches are placing less emphasis on sin and more on developing self-esteem and personal empowerment. This would suggest the doctrinal character of the church is less important than whether it can meet the needs of the members.

This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, the reality is that most, if not all, protestant churches are having serious discussions over tradition, and probably more importantly, doctrine. The question is whether these discussions really matter to ordinary churchgoers. In the United Methodist Church, there is clearly a core of very dedicated laypeople that care deeply about questions of doctrine and tradition. In my local UMC church however, you could probably count the people who are even aware of these discussions on two hands, and one hand the people who actually care.

So at what point does doctrine start to matter to the average layperson? If the UMC started marrying gays and lesbians would people care? If we became a creedal church would people care? I think the answer might be scary to some Methodists. I suspect that a lot of people who attend UM churches (particularly those under 50) probably aren’t that interested in John Wesley and don’t especially care what the Book of Discipline says. They are more attracted by the community of their local church and the pastor (until the conference moves them).

The moving of pastors within the UMC leads me to something else. Our church just found out that our minister is leaving our church to spend more time with her family. A lot of people within the church are heartbroken (maybe overstating it a little, but not by much). I talked with another member on the way to work and she told me that our minister was “the most important reason” she attended our church. This situation is a little different in that the conference is not moving our minister, but I think the impact on the church is much the same.

It will really be a test of the community of our church. How much of the identity of our church is encapsulated in the personality of our minister? One thing I’ve noticed about the mega-churches I’ve attended is that there is almost a cult of personality around the senior pastor. The identity of the church is grounded, in large part, in the personality and charisma of one man (usually – haven’t seen many women pastors at mega-churches).

So the question for us United Methodists who care about Wesley and the Book of Discipline, is how do we make our tradition and doctrine real and relevant for the people in our churches? How do we help “seekers” understand that our shared history as Methodists actually means something? As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t have an answer. I am a first generation United Methodist, but the shared history and tradition of the UMC is very important to me. I’m not sure if the lay members of the church or clergy should take the lead.

Certainly the grace of Jesus Christ is “portable,” (to borrow a term from modern society) but I hope that there’s something about the United Methodist Church that will catch people’s attention and keep them from switching churches as often as they do cell phone plans.

There’s a blog I like to read called “Only Wonder Understands”, that is written by Jay Voorhees, a United Methodist minister in Nashville. He’s written some very intriguing and insightful posts on issues surrounding the church (among other things) and I encourage checking his site out.



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