2 Stars Out Of 5
Small God, small churches
January 7, 2013
I had high hopes for this book, since I have family members and friends who still attend mainline churches - and even more who are ex-mainliners who have told me a lot of stories about why they left. I figured that if these two authors have a plan for renewing the mainlines, great! Let's hear it, guys!
Unfortunately, there are a lot of pretty-but-empty phrases to wade through. The church of the future will find a "balance of sound theology and incarnational experience." Apparently "incarnational experiences" include "paintings, music, meditation, body prayer, sacred conversations, labyrinth walking, pilgrimages, yoga, serving meals to the poor." In fact, "The progressive church will be exploding with acts of creativity." I'm all for music and serving meals to the poor, but not so sure about yoga and "body prayer," nor do I understand why Christ's church is supposed to be "exploding with creativity." Frankly, all this sounds a bit shallow and trendy. So do items like these: The church can "offer a space of grace" and can "move us from meaningless doing to holistic being and reconnect us with our life source." Sorry, but I'm still clueless. Prose like this is meant to impress, not communicate useful ideas.
On the more practical level, some of the suggestions are trivial: churches should stop printing bulletins in order to save paper. Churches should grow grass (I assume they mean TURF) on the church roof. Have church online so people won't cause pollution by driving to church. I do agree with the authors that churches spend way too much on their physical plant, but I suspect the authors bring this up because they are envious of the sprawling evangelical megachurches. When you pastor for a declining denomination, you can't help but be irked that some churches are getting BIGGER.
The authors are hostile to conservatives. "Fear and fundamentalism have joined forces" to hinder the progressive churches. (They don't explain how, and I've noticed that liberal books always characterize evangelicals as "fearful," but they never explain what or who we fear.) They claim there are terrorists "in all faith traditions" today, although we see no evidence of Christian terrorists. Elsewhere in the book they mention "Christian and Muslim fundamentalists" in the same breath, as if there is some dire threat of violence by Christian fundamentalists. The book cites data that proves that people are turned off by evangelicals for being: judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, anti-gay, too involved in conservative politics, boring, and "not accepting of people of other faiths." I agree with them that some churches (both liberal and conservative) really are boring. But the last item bothered me: "accepting of people of other faiths." Let me be clear here: they don't mean mere tolerance of other religions but openly embracing them, welcoming them into church, having dialogue - and NOT requiring anyone to give up their religion before joining a church. In their dream church of the future, churches will quote from the Hindu scriptures as well as from the Bible. They don't cite any evidence that this pluralism has, so far, caused churches to grow. Judging by the world scene, it doesn't appear that "meaningful encounters" between American Christians and Muslims have borne any fruit yet.
The book claims that liberal churches declined because, in the past, they were too liberal for the culture, but now the culture is very liberal - so why aren't liberal churches growing? They don't seem to grasp the obvious answer: when a church pretty much duplicates its culture, why go? Granted, every church will in some way reflect its culture (such as in using its technology). But when the secular culture preaches its own messages of "think green," pluralism, inclusiveness, etc., why go to church on Sunday to hear more of the same? A God who exists primarily to bless liberal political causes is not a very big God, and as a general rule, the smaller the God, the smaller the church.
The progressive church is anxious to ingratiate itself with people rather than to tell them the truth and try to turn them to God. In many ways our world differs from that of the apostles, but look how similar it is - a mix of breeds and creeds, a generally low moral climate, and how did the apostles ingratiate themselves with that world? They didn't. Read Acts and see how Politically Incorrect the first Christians were. They had Good News: Any person can find salvation. Many people accepted, more rejected. Some of those first Christians suffered nothing worse than indifference. Others gave their lives. Jesus claimed he came to bring "fire on the earth" and "not peace but a sword." The authors of this book give the impression that they sat down with a focus group of the unchurched and discovered that the old message of sin and salvation wasn't "cool." So what? It wasn't cool in AD 50 either. Frankly, I would predict that, given the tilt of our culture, both liberal and conservative churches can expect to see decline. It may not be a bad thing - fewer but more committed Christians.
And yet . . . churches are popping up like mushrooms in Korea and Africa. Are they doing it by accommodating to the culture, telling people they can keep their old faith and still be a Christian? No way. Let us pray that the trendy, politicized religion that prevails in America's liberal churches does not infect those vital churches abroad.