I recently wrote about the church conundrum that congregations and denominations struggle with. I said that we need to experiment with new ways of being church and suggested that our Anabaptist, free-church tradition has some promising resources that can help us re-invent the church in response to these challenges. Before discussing that it will be good to step back and take a broader look at our conundrum.
Many saw the 1950s as a golden age for American churches. Church attendance had reached an all-time high. Congregations were building new sanctuaries and Christian education wings to accommodate all the young families and their “baby-boomer” children. There was lots of pent-up energy and resources for building church institutions such as seminaries, colleges, and denominational structures. None of this had been possible in the previous decades marked by the Great Depression and then World War II.
There were few voices of caution in the 1950s. One that I already mentioned was religious scholar Will Herberg who worried that American religion was broadly popular but shallow. Another was Paul Peachey, a young Mennonite working in relief and reconstruction efforts in Europe following the war. The world looked vastly different in post-war Europe than it did in the American heartland.
Peachey and other young Mennonites serving in Europe met in Amsterdam in 1952 to reflect on their post-war experience. As part of that reflection, he wrote a paper looking at the European religious situation following the devastating war that had torn apart their world and left many floundering as survivors bereft of mystery. As a consequence, he saw a precipitous decline in European Christendom, along with the social structures that had undergirded it for centuries. He said that what this reality called for was a more spiritual fellowship centered in primary groups (cited in Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus, 34).
Three years later, Peachey wrote an article in the Gospel Herald, a church periodical, responding to the flurry of building American church institutional structures. He cautioned, “The church has never yet survived development into a temporal power structure. Sooner or later, institutional weight crushes the spiritual dynamic of the church as the community of Christ and the saints” (Gospel Herald, March 1, 1955: 193-96).
We might argue that Peachey was overly pessimistic. On a personal level, he certainly didn’t completely reject church institutions. He later taught sociology at The Catholic University of America until he retired. Still, his caution about the institutional church and his call for a more spiritual fellowship focused on primary groups resonates strongly in our day. We’re more disenchanted with the church as an institution than Americans were in the 50s. My next post will explore some of the reasons for our disenchantment.