The Church Conundrum (Part 3)


Last week World Vision, a large Christian relief and development agency, ran into a social-religious buzz saw. They were trying to position themselves to bridge the controversial issue of same-sex marriage by changing their employment policy to no longer exclude gay Christians in a same-sex marriage, while stating that they were leaving the ethical and theological discernment on the matter to local churches and denominations. Their focus would remain on poverty alleviation around the world.

The policy change went viral and inundated their call centers with calls from angry people, including child sponsors withdrawing their support. Some call center operators became so overwhelmed by all the vitriol that they had to resign. In less than 48 hours, the World Vision board reversed its decision. I respect the nuanced way World Vision was attempting to negotiate this thorny pastoral issue that has been roiling churches for several decades. I’m flabbergasted by the uproar it created and how quickly the board responded by reversing its decision. It was a fiasco!

I won’t debate the different sides of this issue. I, instead, lift it up as an example of what religion writer Diana Butler Bass calls “the horrible decade” for religion. In my last post I talked about the 1950s as the highpoint for American church membership and the growth of Christian institutions. A gradual decline followed in the 60s that continued into the end of the century. Mainline churches especially struggled but the decline was uneven and many churches continued to experience growth. There was a continuing sense of optimism into the 90s.

The “horrible decade” hit at the turn of the century and shows no sign of letting up. Diana Butler Bass describes it as “downright horrible for religion, leading to a ‘participation crash’ for churches of all sorts” (Christianity after Religion, 77). She points to different factors that contributed to this precipitous decline. One of the most culpable has been the conflict over homosexuality. This is the buzz saw the World Vision board stepped into by attempting to proactively bridge this deep chasm that divides religious people. The sheer ugliness of the fight has been especially alienating. It sucks the energy and vitality out of all other endeavors.

The “horrible decade” began with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. At first people turned to the churches for support and comfort. Then politicians and the media began to blame religious extremists for the attacks. It got worse when prominent American religious personalities began to claim that the attacks were God’s punishment for our infidelity. It got increasingly worse when they then verbally attacked Islam in a way that demonstrated their own religious intolerance. Many drew the conclusion that religion poisons everything.

The sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church was another factor. The worst part was that Catholic bishops were more inclined to protect their church institutions than to help the many children who had been sexually violated by priests. It was further exacerbated by the Catholic and Evangelical Religious Right involvement in American electoral politics in a way that’s at odds with the cultural and spiritual values of people outside the Bible belt—especially the younger generation. The Religious Right won some significant political battles but at what cost? We’re losing the hearts and minds of a whole generation.

This brings me back to Paul Peachey’s call for a more spiritual fellowship focused on primary groups as he wrestled with how to respond to the post-World War II devastation in Europe (see my previous post). The direction he pointed in is especially relevant today. The challenge is to experiment with ways of being church that respond to the present crisis that follows the pattern of severely compromised institutional religion in post-war Europe. Like Peachey, I’m convinced that it calls for nothing less than re-inventing the church. I’ll write more about that in future blogs.

2 thoughts on “The Church Conundrum (Part 3)

  1. Nice blog, Earl. I think another issue that needs to be addressed is how religiously affiliated agencies that are developed to serve other purposes — World Vision for relief and development, Eastern Mennonite University for educating peace and justice leaders for the world — can embrace and include Christians who disagree about some issues. The primary groups you are describing might work for some things, but not for achieving these very large goals that require more mass and more complex infrastructure.

    • Thanks for your kind words Jayne. You certainly have more experience than I do in how institutions like World Vision with a mission to serve other purposes can bridge the culture wars that sharply divide our churches and our society. The World Vision board seriously misread how their policy change would be received by significant religious stakeholders and was, therefore, unprepared for the fallout. Perhaps your work on the Waco fiasco can offer some helpful insights on this. I’m thinking primarily as a church person and one of the things I learned in my doctoral studies at Catholic University is that the local church is primary. That’s what Paul Peachey was also calling the European churches back to in the post-World War II era. We certainly need other structures to serve these primary fellowships and our wider mission. However, Diana Butler Bass says that our American denominational structures follow the corporate model of General Motors and that’s part of our conundrum. In my mind this ranks pretty high in what needs to be re-invented. Again, I welcome your insights on what that might look like.

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