Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How Much Should Church Cost You?

Yesterday Rachel Held Evans posted this thought provoking piece.  Especially intriguing to me was Diana Butler Bass’s response to New York Times author Ross Douthat’s article "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?".  Evans posted this summary of Bass’s response on her blog:

Diana Butler Bass responded with an article entitled “Can Christianity be Saved?”  in which she reminds Douthat that conservative churches are also in decline. “In the last decade,” she writes, “as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic "blips," waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.  The real question is not 'Can liberal Christianity be saved?' The real question is:'Can Christianity be saved?' 

Intriguing because I did not know this (the decline of conservative churches) was the case. 

Recently I finished reading Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity.  In his chapter on “Pluralism and American Piety,” Stark makes an interesting suggestion.  “As is evident in most consumer markets, people do not usually rush to purchase the cheapest model or variety, but attempt to maximize by selecting the item that offers the most for their money—that offers the best value. (359)”  Crass language to describe the religion business, I know, but consider a few of his examples.

Stark points out that the American religious landscape was dominated by traditional denominational options at the country’s outset in 1776, but then the far stricter Methodists moved in becoming the largest denomination in America by 1850.  Then by the dawn of the 20th century, the Methodists had greatly reduced the moral requirements to be a member in good standing and their decline already had begun. (359-60).

This pattern, Stark points out, shows up in the data below:

The denominations at the top of the list have “discarded traditional Christian teachings and ask little of its clergy and members—the Episcopalians long tolerated Josh Shelby Spong, an extremely vocal atheist, as a bishop. (360)”

One might be tempted to point to the Catholic Church as anomaly in some way or form, given the relative absence of shift in data, but this is not the indicative of the whole story.  After the amendments of Vatican II the number of monks and nuns plummeted.  Why?  Stark argues it was because the sacrifices required of people to be in these orders was reduced.  “Fore example, many orders of nuns were allowed to abandon their elaborate garb and wear clothing that does not identify them as members of a religious order.  Other council actions revoked rules requiring many hours of daily prayer and meditation in convents and monasteries. (362)”  Within a year there began a rapid decline in the number of nuns.  In the U.S. the number of nuns went from 176,671 in 1966 to 71,487 in 2004 (363).

Stark’s conclusion: competition does not reward “cheap” religion.

One of my friends recently called Stark “bombastic” in some of his claims.  I know that we should always be wary of statistics and that generalizations are never completely correct so I will share this anecdotal evidence. 

I recently received a phone call from a prospective Truett (Baylor’s seminary) student.  He became a Christian at a Passion event.  As a result he has developed deep affinities with that movement and wanted to know if, since this was the church David Crowder helped start, we were a church like that? 

I will now make some of my own generalizations.  The Passion movement seems to be distantly connected with the neo-reformed movement.  I say "distantly" because I don’t think it is explicitly so.  Louie Giglio, though a Calvinist, is seeking to make Christians, not just Calvinists.  And though John Piper is a frequent speaker I would guess the masses have a Christian faith more akin to Francis Chan or Beth Moore, at least in expression.  I say that because my suspicion was that this student was really wanting to know if we were a neo-reformed church. 

Wanting to be articulate in my response to this student I began asking what a church like “this,” was like.  We chatted extensively about atonement, providence, salvation and a bunch of other theological issues that I thought might help him make a decision.  Some issues made it clear how divergent our views were, some issues made clear how much we had in common.  At one point we got to a “so what’s really important for you about church,” question.  His answer surprised me.  It was essentially that he wanted a church that partner with him in sharing the gospel at whatever the cost, even if it meant death like the early martyrs died. 

I follow John Piper on Twitter.  Occasionally I’ll click on a link as I did when this was posted on the Desiring God blog.  For all my theological objections, I can agree with neo-reformers on this: the gospel demands our life … all of it. 

I’ve said this much about the neo-reformers for two reasons.  1. As far as I can tell, they are the fasting growing religious movement in this country.  2. They understand that the gospel is costly. 

Dietrich Bonheoffer understood better than most of us that grace is not cheap.  Because grace is not cheap, neither should our ecclesiology be.

My favorite David Crowder Band song is “I’m Trying To Make You Sing.” 

The song, just two verses, remind me of the profound and haunting nature of the gospel:

And I'm trying to make you sing

From inside where you believe

Like it's something that you need

Like it means everything

And I'm trying to make you feel that

This is for real, that life is happening

That it means everything

I'm just trying to make you sing 

I think the churches that will grow will be those that cost you something to be a part of.