The National Journal features a compelling analysis of American’s deepening sense that the major institutions that held our society together are broken. That includes the church. Under the subheading “From Guttenberg to Google”, writers Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton compare a Sunday morning at a Methodist Church is Muncie, Indiana to Sunday morning at a nearby megachurch. They write:
Away from his pulpit, Mendenhall confesses that his own downtown church is struggling to regain its direction. The 176-year-old institution is emblematic of a trend in Muncie and America: Mainline churches are losing relevancy and worshippers because they have failed to adapt to the changing needs of their communities. From 1981 to 2011, High Street’s membership dropped 52 percent to 700. The average Sunday attendance declined 27 percent to 379.
That decline reflects the experience of older religious institutions around the country. Those who have left the Catholic Church, for instance, now outnumber those who have joined it 4-to-1, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2008 survey. The large Protestant denominations have lost more than a million members in the past decade or so. The most telling statistic may be the number of Americans who declare themselves “unaffiliated” with any church tradition; it has been rising since the 1960s, and it topped 16 percent in 2010, according to Gallup.
The goings-on at Union Chapel Ministries, just a few miles away, help explain why traditionalists are languishing. Sitting on a 40-acre plot, Union Chapel is part of a fast-growing multibillion-dollar religious industry in America that is adapting one of the world’s oldest institutions to fit modern times—by giving congregants a sense of connection many had ceased to feel elsewhere. These so-called mega-churches are led by charismatic pastors with the skill set of corporate marketers; they sell not just the word of God but also the utility of God’s teaching in an era of atomization and economic change. What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out.
Union Chapel’s pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you’d expect from an M.B.A. (“I’m in the word business”) or a sociologist (“We’re going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world”). He keeps his sermons simple because “you can’t assume everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer,” and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life’s challenges. His church offers counseling for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marriage problems, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. Union Chapel heavily promotes its social clubs to buoy connection-starved people. The services are casual, hip, and focused on middle-class Muncians who feel abandoned amid economic change. “My job,” Parris says in an interview at his office, “is to fill in the gaps where our institutions have failed us.”
Those of you who partake in the discussion about the decline of mainline Protestant churches, the rise of the megachurch, and related issues, may not find this section of the story especially fresh. But it is worth reflecting on the fact that the decline of church membership is taking place in the context of a decline in faith in institutions of all sort. The emerging church movement speaks to that in some ways. Yet, to some extent, liturgical churches are what they are, and can only adapt what they offer on Sunday mornings so far before surrendering their identities. Does anybody have any bright ideas about how we do that while still speaking to the raider loss of interests in institutions? Or does the answer lie, perhaps in augmenting, and (I offer this very gingerly) perhaps deemphasizing what we do on Sunday mornings in favor of spending time and energy on other sorts of gatherings?