July 26, 2012

Of Church, Decline, and Culture

There has been a lot of statistic-tossing back and forth about the decline of the Mainline Churches in the US, in particular in comparison with such entities as the Southern Baptist Convention. That there has been decline is evident; but the efforts at showing causality seem to me to be hampered by a failure to recognized the differences in culture geographically. When you average things across the whole United States, you tend to miss some important factors.

This might reflect something of the phenomenon of entropy: there is a gradual winding down of things and increasing disorder, yet even while that happens there are “islands” of increasing ordered complexity. So too there may well be islands of growth amidst an over-all trend towards diminishment.

For example, churchgoing is a cultural reality that has been maintained in the South better than in the North. Since the South is a stronghold of the Southern Baptists (duh!) It might make more sense to compare them, and their growth (or decline, as I understand it) with that of dioceses, presbyteries and synods of the mainline churches in those same regions. I know when I was in Memphis two years back I saw a level of churchgoing in all sorts of churches that many in the North would envy. Averaging what is essentially a cultural/regional phenomenon over the whole country is not going to give an accurate picture.

As John Chilton noted in a conversation at the Episcopal Café, you could say the same thing about bowling. It might be helpful to take a look at all sorts of cultural realities and compare their decline and geographic distribution since the 1950s. Is it only the churches that have changed? What about bowling? How has that institution and social phenomenon thrived or declined, and is it tenpins, duckpins or candlepins? What is the most successful “sect” in the realm of Bowlingdom?

The rise and fall of the Drive-In Movie might also make for a good analysis, or even the Cinema itself. Does the rise of the Multiplex reflect the rise of the Megachurch, and for similar reasons? And what relevance does the death of the art house or the neighborhood movie theater have for the plight of small and dwindling churches? In a more mobile culture, perhaps the message to the church is to consolidate the many small neighborhood or village churches into larger and more well-supported few churches — with ample parking!

Context and culture and geography are not lightly to be neglected when seeking to understand social phenomena — of which churchgoing is but one. And distinguishing causality from coincidence is also helpful.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

I see consolidation in the future of the mainline churches, along with perhaps more cross-denominational cooperation.

The multiplex theaters are hurting, too, as more and more people watch movies from home. One wonders if the church will go in the same direction in the future: worship at home.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, GM. This whole cinema analogy has got me thinking... and it may be fruitful.

But I'm coming more and more to think that consolidation may be the best way forward. Here in the Bronx there are 26 Episcopal Churches, many of them struggling, some almost dying. It may be the era of the boutique church is over, except for those that are so specialized that hey can find enough support for their very special sort of worship.

June Butler said...

My church is the only Episcopal game in town, and we are struggling. The next nearest Episcopal church is about 17 miles away. I wonder, at my age, if I would choose to attend often enough to be considered a regular.

My congregation is a small island of inclusivity in conservative, Roman Catholic territory, and there really is no nearby alternative. The saying, "All politics is local," may apply to church, too, and I may be more pessimistic than others about the the future of the church from the pew where I sit.

I want be clear that I am not pessimistic about the future of church as Body of Christ, because I believe God will provide.

dr.primrose said...

The largest Unitarian Universalist Church in the U.S. is in Tulsa, Oklahoma, All Souls Unitarian. While at first blush that seems very counterintuitive, for the reasons you state it makes a lot of sense. In the South, it's important to go to church. Where one goes to church, however, has of significantly less importance.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

This is, frankly, where the greatest challenges will be. There's every reason to keep the alternatives in play when they are really the only alternatives. Keep up the good work, pray, and God will indeed provide!

Your Yankee cousin...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Dr. P. I imagine Arlington Street in Boston gets not nearly so many of a Sunday. It's a beautiful space, as I recall from a visit many years ago.

JCF said...

Here in the Bronx there are 26 Episcopal Churches, many of them struggling, some almost dying. It may be the era of the boutique church is over

Conversely, there are those who say we need to go the house-church model! [i.e., even more boutique]

I suspect they're both right (and both wrong).

Whatever we do---mega-church or house-churches, or both---I just want to make sure that liturgical beauty of our physical plant is not lost. It's not an option, for Anglicans (esp. Anglo-Catholics). If our Via Media doesn't make us wonder if "we're in heaven or on Earth" (ala the Eastern Orthodox), then we're nothing.

Sid said...

I saw this original comment on the Episcopal Cafe. Really intriguing stuff, and I'm glad you expanded on it here. Do you know if anybody has done any work that attempts to incorporate these factors?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

JCF, I think there will always be a place for the "boutique." My thinking here is somewhat influenced by a report from last spring about how well the English Cathedrals are doing, much better than most parishes.

Sid, thanks. I don't know if anyone is taking this kind of holistic look at things -- and that is the problem; a mix of gross statistics without context and anecdotal evidence. The problem is exacerbated by some church bodies not providing statistics on attendance, and some inflating membership. The SBC revealed a few years back that some of their figures had been inflated. Bad data make for bad information!

Murdoch Matthew said...

My cousin in on staff at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church; my husband and I read the Burial Office for my Baptist mother in their chapel in 2001. Since then, All Souls has been on a grand adventure -- it took in a Pentecostal Bishop who became too liberal for his denomination and the faithful remnant of his congregation. This has shaken up a largely white congregation described by the pastor as NPR on Sunday. The story through 2009 is told here: http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/145503.shtml

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks MM. My guess is that the UU tradition will always have a certain level of attraction to it -- kind of like Cistercianism!

Murdoch Matthew said...

I'd hoped you'd get more out of the article about All Souls UU, Tulsa, than noting the limited appeal of the UU (intellectual?) tradition. All Souls has an upper middle class membership, of similar social class to Episcopalians, and has undertaken a heroic effort to diversify and become a more inclusive place, less based on common experience. I don't know how it's gone in the two years since the article was published. I know that our neighborhood parish is struggling to integrate a Spanish congregation -- bi-lingual services don't work, and the Anglo crowd is set in its ways and aging.

Do you mean that "Cistercianism" (work with one's hands, self-support?) has a certain appeal, and Unitarianism has another, different, limited appeal? The connection escapes me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Hi Murdoch, it's an interesting article, but it didn't strike me as all that unusual except for the fact that it involved a congregation changing its worship style. (My only familiarity with Unitarian worship is examining the marriage liturgy of the Kings Chapel some years ago.) Adopting a more popular style will always bring in a certain amount of new people for whom that style is more to their taste, or reflects their culture. I've known a number of episcopal parishes that shifted in a more "pentecostal" direction --- the so-called "charismatic" movement back in the 70s, St Paul's Darien Connecticut as a prime example. A commtiment to diversity can also be a definite plus -- though as you observe it may drive away some of the older members. As I mentioned in the original post, there can be islands of growth amidst general decline. And I'm sure that this example owes more than a little to the leadership of Pearson --- how it will fare in his wake is less clear. Churches come and go; that is really the point I was trying to make. I don't think there is any "formula."

What I meant about Cistercianism is that it is not the most popular form of religious life, but it has its committed followers, and they tend to go to underdeveloped areas and build them up. That sounds like a current plan at All Souls. But not all people want a "religion without a creed" as All SS advertises. Some people do want a creed, just as some people want relgious commitment but on a Franciscan model. That is not a judgment on Benedict or Robert and Bernard; just the reality of different strokes for different folks. I didn't mean to imply a connection, but a similarity in being a particular "flavor" amongst all the various flavors of religion available in the world.