In the Magazine this month we’re featuring posts that explore the changing norms and future of the Episcopal Church. In this essay, Bernard Owens reflects on how the church reflected mid-twentieth century American ideals; ideal that it clings to, perhaps at its peril.
by Bernard Owens
To consider the church 50 years in the future, we might look 50 or so years in the past.
Consider Bill; Bill died early this summer at age 85. He came from humble beginnings and found a solid middle-class life through hard work, thrift and commitment to family. His wife, who also died this summer, was often by his side as she had been for 64 years of marriage.
Any pastor of an American church knows a story like this. Bill grew up helping at his dad’s grocery store and came to admire “the Nabisco man” who made rounds to the family store. He admired that salesman so much that after he started working Bill took a pay cut to work as a salesman for Nabisco. He eventually got promoted, managing other salesmen and overseeing an office in Greensboro. A true Nabisco Man, Bill stayed with the company his whole career. His granddaughter gave a moving eulogy for Bill that included a story about an endless stack of plastic Nabisco cups that he would fill with Coca-Cola whenever the grandchildren came by their home.
This summer we’ve told a similar story three times: Bill with Nabisco, Bob with Sears, Ralph with AT&T. Each followed a company career path that allowed their families to take root in communities and churches. For half a century, these folks have been faithful, generous and steady.
The church of the past 50 years has relied heavily upon the Nabisco Man in all its manifestations. Churches were planted and built on the foundation of Nabisco Men and their families, pews and committees were filled, budgets were fulfilled by their pledges. As the economy rolled, so went the Church.
This is hardly news. What I wonder is this: do we realize just how much we still expect the church of the Nabisco Man to come back?
I look at these company men of the 50’s and beyond and I see an out-of-balance worship of growth. Not on their part, of course. The economy is supposed to be about growth, and it just so happens that economic progress is usually good for the local church as well.
Somewhere along the way, though, the church took on the American language of growth and turned it into both the new plumb-line and the new gospel. Growth is important: trust me, as a rector I very much want the Church to grow. But often what we refer to as church growth has little or nothing to do with evangelism, which is a little weird when you stop and think about it.
In 1983 Arlin J. Rothauge wrote that church size (family, program, resource, etc.) will determine how a church behaves. We ignore these insights at our peril. And yet, we don’t do enough to see how our attention to “church size” (which usually means asking how much we are or are not growing) is really just another way of being wedded to the American economy.
We don’t do enough to question why churches align so consistently with standards that are rooted more in culture than in discipleship or transformation. If we were more differentiated from the wider culture and economy, perhaps the church-size categories would feel less like straightjackets. The typology gives a brilliant snapshot of the church, but it may not sufficiently account for the fact that this snapshot was taken 30 years into the age of the Nabisco Man, perhaps even at Peak Nabisco. Even as we update that model, we don’t do enough to question the seductiveness of growth for its own sake.
I’m sure Rothauge accounted for that. The problem is that we don’t much account for it. To some extent, church size typology is still very much about how many Nabisco Men and Women we’ve got filling out our rolls. And we always want more. We still want to grow at all times and judge ourselves harshly when we don’t. A church, however, isn’t just about growing young families and having a larger potluck every year. We are most faithful when we pay equal attention to loss, joy, sacrifice, depth, transition, generosity, hardship, reconciliation, justice, and yes, growth.
Change is especially hard today as we lose the stability of the Nabisco Man and all he brings. But the instability, which I find to be about as much fun as a root canal, may help shake us loose from the hardened identities of church-size-types. I think that’s beginning to happen in some places, so I am quite hopeful for the church 20, 30 and even 50 years in the future. Joy in ministry doesn’t come from counting beans or bottoms, even if those things are necessary. It comes from connecting to real life, from all the ways that we live as the Body of Christ.
BJ Owens is the rector of St. Andrew’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. He blogs at widenessofthesea.org.