It’s About God

In our Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon, 1990), Stanley Hauerwas and I said that there was much a-theism in the contemporary church. Atheism? We go about evoking vague spiritual sensibilities in our listeners (preaching), soothing the anxieties of the affluent (pastoral care), keeping the machinery oiled (church administration) as if God didn’t matter.

Most of us began worrying about our membership loses with the publication of Dean Kelly’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1977). Kelly’s thesis, as best I remember, was not simply that conservative churches were growing because they were strict and conservative (although their relatively high demands upon their members was a positive growth factor) but rather because these churches kept themselves energetically focused on the main business of religion — making meaning for their members. When churches become distracted, seeing themselves as just another volunteer service organization, or one more friendly social club, they decline. The business of churches, said Kelly, is meaning in God.

In the succeeding years, we pastors were deluged by studies and books on church growth and decline. Some said Kelly had neglected certain sociological factors; that he had made too much of the intellectual/theological basis for church growth. They pointed out that the mainline protestant birthrates had declined since the 1950’s. Most mainline growth comes through births to members, therefore the decline.

Then a book by C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen, Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream: Sources of Growth and Opportunities for Change (Abingdon, 1995) showed the fruit of decades of studies of church growth and decline. As their title shows, Hadaway and Roozen, two distinguished observers of the mainline church, tried to get beyond analysis and more toward positive prescription.

We live in a buyer’s market, as far as religion is concerned, say Hadaway and Roozen. And that’s not completely bad. Having had a virtual monopoly on American religious life, today’s mainline protestants must now adapt to a consumeristic culture where people shop for a church, where people demand quality, and where people drop their church if it doesn’t meet their demands.

Too often those demands are identified as an upbeat worship service, a clean nursery, a big parking lot — which are important factors. However, Hadaway and Roozen highlight a demand that echoes some of Kelly’s earlier claims. They say that, when all the factors are studied, “the key issue for the churches seems to be a compelling religious character…not whether the content of that character is liberal or conservative” (p. 69).

For some time I’ve believed that Mainline Protestantism is in trouble because we provided people with the theological rationale not to go to church. We gave them a theology of secularity. Hadaway and Roozen seem to agree. Church cannot be a sanctified form of Rotary. We must clearly, intentionally, relentlessly be determined to be a place where we meet God and God in Jesus Christ meets us.

Hadaway and Roozen tell the delightful story of a Roman Catholic congregation that opened their worship with a time of friendly community and handshaking. The priest said, “It would be a shame to leave here without knowing those around us.”

Then, with a twinkle in his eye he said, “It would be a much greater shame to leave here without knowing God!”

The congregation erupted into applause as if to affirm this is the reason why we are here.

Hadaway and Roozen are explicit:

“To grow and to continue growing, it is necessary for each mainstream church to
become of vital religious institution, vibrant with the presence of God. It must
develop a clear religious identity, a compelling religious purpose, and a
coherent sense of direction that arises from that purpose” (p. 86).

A strong sense of identity and a compelling vision are the two essential characteristics for a vibrant congregation. Hadaway and Roozen are critical of Kelly and others who believe that high demands, conservative theology, or strict expectations are the key.

We desperately need leaders, say Hadaway and Roozen, leaders who are dissatisfied with decline, who refuse to bow to sociological determinism, who emphasize the distinctive, spiritual, God dimensions of church.

Halford Luccock, that great teacher and preacher, told the story of the Methodist congregation, somewhere in the remote Dakotas, who suffered a severe blizzard one winter. The snow was high. Even the mail did not get through for a week. That meant that the pastor and congregation had no clue what was the denominational emphasis for that week. They did not if know this Sunday in February was United Nations Sunday, or the Festival of the Christian Home Sunday, or what. So, said Luccock, the pastor strode embarrassed before the congregation that Sunday and said that, “In the absence of any other reason for gathering today, we’ll just worship God.”

William H. Willimon

7 thoughts on “It’s About God

  1. Nice closing story there. You said: “A strong sense of identity and a compelling vision are the two essential characteristics for a vibrant congregation. Hadaway and Roozen are critical of Kelly and others who believe that high demands, conservative theology, or strict expectations are the key.”It seems to me, having only thought about this for a few moments, that a conservative or strict bent in a church may actually help re-enforce a strong sense of identity much more effectively than a moderate or liberal bent. If, to borrow a word from our advertising campaign, we are simply the people who are “open” – this doesn’t seem to offer much that is substantial to the question of spiritual identity, does it? It can mean so many different things as to mean not much of anything.It’s hard to get excited about being “the people who can live with ambiguity” (as in a moderate or moderately liberal grouping). On the other hand, a church in which we (as hypothetical members) know EXACTLY what is expected of us in terms of both beliefs and behavior is a church that gives a very firm sense of identity (we are those who believe X and do Y). It is simple and clear cut and therefore available to the widest array of people. Does that make sense, it is perhaps not very well expressed?


  2. Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.


  3. I wouldn’t fret too much about “conservative” church growth or the lack of growth in the UMC churches. Certainly, numbers indicate souls, so there, yet, do fret. We don’t need churches closing all over the place.However, the current trend (probably starting in youth ministry…of which I am most aware) towards “It’s not religion, it’s a relationship” is robbing many churches of any sense of religion at all. The unique character of the church that you so prescribe is disappearing just as quickly in other denominations, including the stronghold of the Mennonites. I usually stick out like a sore thumb when I tell my own peers (I’m 23) that I think we need to be religious. I’m afraid no one will listen until we are irrelevant, all the while chasing relevancy. Sad.


  4. I totally agree with the statement that we (mainliners) provided the theological rationalnot to go to church. However, the bishop still does not address the core issue, which is this: Does it matter, one way or another, temporally or eternally, whether a person is a Christian, Anything Else, or, most often, Nothing At All? The answer by out consensus of silence is a deafening “No?” So, why should I go to church? What’s gonna happen to me if I don’t. As to the question of whether people would rather miss the blessings of church or go to The Mall, I don’t think we want the answer. We seem to have decided in recent decades that God is the Ultimate Egalitarian. Everyone gets treated the same.


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