Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Americans Changing Churches at an Increasing Rate

The New York Times, summarizing a survey done by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, notes that Americans are changing churches/religions at an increasing rate. I believe it, but I'll also throw something out here, and see if it resonates with anybody.

I don't identify myself with a particular theological tradition other than "orthodox Christianity." And I wonder if there are others out there like me, and whether that fact contributes to the increased fluidity noted in the Pew survey. The fact that someone is Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, emerging church, whatever, is almost immaterial to me. I say "almost" because, yes, I think doctrine matters very much in terms of basic Christian beliefs. But once those basic beliefs (nicely encompassed in The Apostle's Creed) are confirmed, then the things I'm looking for in a good church can be met in a variety of denominational settings. And I'll go to the "best" church that meets those doctrinal requirements (and I'll define "best" in a minute).

I am a theological mongrel (some would say "bastard," and they'd probably be right, too). I grew up in the Catholic Church, pursued the god of hedonism for a while (and then a little while longer as a Christian, and then longer again; that's still the besetting temptation in my life), came back to the faith through the Jesus Movement, was a Jesus Freak in a non-denominational Christian community for eight years, have been membered in Brethren (Anabaptist/Arminian) and Presbyterian (Calvinist) churches, and currently find myself in a Vineyard church, which combines elements of the Jesus Freak, Calvinist, and Anabaptist traditions with a liturgical and contemplative focus that is heavily indebted to the Catholic and Anglican traditions. So what does that make me? I don't know. A Christian, as best I can figure.

I will be membered wherever people desire to pursue a relationship with God, and understand in some fairly non-negotiable ways that dying to self and living for Christ is the hardest and most rewarding life imaginable, and that it takes a community where people are known and loved, warts and all, to make that happen. That's what constitutes the "best" church, in my opinion. Realizing that any church will fall somewhat short of the mark (if nothing else because I am in it), I have always looked for the local church that comes closest to understanding and embodying those ideals. When I was a young adult that was a community in the middle of the ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. When I lived in a small Ohio town it was the local PCUSA church. Now it's a Vineyard church, although, quite honestly, I'm sure there are Vineyard churches out there that would drive me crazy, and that I could never be a part of. I'm simply not wedded to a particular theological tradition, and changing traditions is simply the price that has to be paid when one moves, and when one is looking for the "best" local incarnation of what it means to be the body of Christ at a particular time in a particular place.

From what I can tell, there are a lot of similarly-minded Christians out there. I'm in a church full of them; people who recognize the value of a lot of different theological traditions, and how those traditions can address the shortcomings of any one theological viewpoint. I am, first and foremost, a Christian. The doctrinal/historical distinctives are not unimportant, but they take a back seat (pew? folding Samsonite chair?) to hanging out with a bunch of folks who understand, deep down, their need for Christ, their own culpability in the mess they have made of their lives, and their utter dependence on Jesus to sort it out. First and foremost I look for a messy church. If all things are done decently and in order, then I simply figure that people are wearing their nice, proper Christian masks, and I have better things to do with my life than play that game again. And I wonder how much those kinds of thoughts factor in to the increasing fluidity of church membership that is noted in that Pew survey. Anybody have any thoughts?


Karen said...

yep. you about summed it up for me.

gordo said...

Thanks Andy.
Long time reader, first time writer.

I am in a quandry myself with this.
I was baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian church (the first half of the circle) and made a commitment myself as a young adult (second half of the circle). To me the theology of this is sound. I now attend an amazing inner city Baptist church. The problem is that I can't be a member because I have not had a "believer baptism". So the the thing is... do I cheapen the tradition I was born in and just get dunked and receive membership. Or, since I don't believe I need a second baptisim do I cheapen their tradition by getting dunked so I can vote a the annual business meeting.

The plot thickens...
I have two teenager from a previous marriage who attend this church regularly (every other weekend), and smaller kids who have come along while we have worshiped with the baptist church. If the teenagers want to become members... Will they cheapen their tradition and what I stood up an confessed for them having been baptized in the Presbyterian Church.

I can't get have the two little ones presented to the congregation in the form of a baby dedication and so embrace where we are now... because we are not members.

I am very fortunate to attend and be a worship leader in this part of the body but it feels a little like taxation without representation. We tithe regular but have no say in how the monies are dispersed.

I am sure more rigid folks than us would move on to another church so that these conflicts would be nullified.

However I think that we will stay and fight to change the central tenant of their Baptist tradition and be allowed in without being emmersed as an adult.

I'll let you know how that goes...


Anonymous said...

I think the fluidity is surely seen in the changes people make when they relocate their families and join a different tradition, but I also think a lot of it is from those who move around within their own community because they don't know or care what they believe. They're just looking for the most entertaining place, and when the church down the street hires a more dynamic speaker or installs bigger jumbotrons they "move their letter."

Anonymous said...

Gordo, I don't think you would cheapen any tradition by following the "believer's baptism" tradition of the Baptist church in your community. It is a strong tradition well grounded in scripture.

This phrase made me chuckle: fight to change the central tenant of their Baptist tradition. Not meaning to belittle your position at all, but being a part of Baptist life for almost three decades, I think you may have a better chance of becoming the first lady of Iceland. Cheers to you, though, for serving and working through these issues with the brothers and sisters in your church.

allison said...

Very well said. That's really cool that you have been a part of so many different faith traditions; it really illustrates the fact that the community of Christ is not limited, as so many people think, to a specific group who believes exactly the same way.

Having spent my whole life in basically a single church (PCUSA), I sometimes wonder what it'd be like to try something completely different. However, when I visit another denomination (primarily Baptist) I usually find it lacks the community factor of being in a place full of people who have known me and supported me my whole life; I feel like so many of the churches around me are these huge "mega-churches" that are too much show and not enough community for my taste. I guess I'm stuck in my Presbyterian rut. But I like it here, so I can't complain.

jasdye said...

i may have replied here once before, some millenia ago, but i am a long-time reader.

i think what you are describing characterizes the emerging movement nicely (not always, but it can). younger generations of church-goers (or would-be church-goers) are recognizing the fluidity and ancient-ness of the various Christian traditions. many want something that combines the best of multiple worlds.

but even that is a bit consumerist. and i believe that - for a large part of those surveyed - unfortunately, Keith is correct.

church leaders have tried to get bigger and better programs to entice members for years (most noticeably in the mega-church models, but other local churches followed suit) and that's what church audiences have come to expect. so they'll leave to follow the show.

it's a death-trap. and i hope it dies to allow the model that you expressed to bloom.

(sorry about the rambling. no sleep.)

Andy Whitman said...

Gordon, I sympathize with your dilemma. My advice, for what it's worth: go ahead and get re-baptized. I fully understand that different Christians believe different things about baptism. But I also believe (as with so much other doctrinal infighting) that if the issue was clearcut, there woudln't be 3,498 denominations out there, each claiming to preach the exclusive truth. So get re-baptized as an adult. At worst it's a redundant exercise, and the Christian Church is one place where double-dipping is permitted. Doing so also allows you to become a member of the church, and if you're going to be there, you might as well have a voice that is recognized.

I also think it's admirable that you're committed to this church, regardless of how this issue is resolved. And I agree with Keith that you're about as likely to change Baptist doctrinal stances as you are to become the first lady of Iceland. Some Crusades are worth undertaking. This is not one of them, particularly because you find so much else about the church that is praiseworthy. Good luck.

caparoon said...

There seems to be a groundswell movement among Jesus-followers of all kinds that somewhat separates the concept of denominational church membership from their faith. I'd go so far as to say it appears to be the work of the Spirit--something almost unheard of in the super-tidy organized churches of America today. It really does give you hope that Jesus' prayer for us of unity may come to pass. It's cool when statistics bear witness to the kingdom of god. : ]

mosiacmind said...

well said..liz

Coryslave said...

Church membership isn't in the Bible. As members of Christ's body, Christians are to give total allegiance to Him alone (what baptism's about)—not sign membership covenants or promise loyalty to a local human leader and his box.

Paul wrote to all the "called out ones" (= Christians) in entire cities. If a local church got one of his letters today, they'd probably keep it to draw sheep to their little kingdom, rather than circulate it, as 1st century house "churches" did.

To me, church membership = a manufactured means of human control. Pastors would do better to free people up to go minister in the world as the Spirit leads. JMHO.

Anonymous said...

Nice one. That's a pretty damn (oops - er, blessed) good summary of the way I feel too. Brought up in Northern Ireland to go to church because that was what people did, I began a journey as a follower of Jesus in 1972 (thanks to an American called Arthur Blessit). [digression: Said journey much influenced in the early years by Larry Norman as I played/worked as a musician through the 70's to early 90s - I also liked your obit post on him.] I learned early on due to the situation in NI to drop the demoninational tags and have tried to remain loose to and suspicious of them and their attendant paraphenalia. I think God's criteria of who's in or out are a lot different to ours and we all have some surprises coming.