for Religion News Service on April 2, 2007
Why, asks a reader, have new community churches had "such tremendous growth," while older denominational congregations show "declining church attendance?"
Some want the answer to be better doctrine, conservative ethics and politics, and a fundamentalist biblical theology. Nonsense. This isn't a partisan victory dance.
It is time to be concerned. Our democracy depends on religious vitality to encourage self-sacrifice, religious diversity to undergird tolerance, and sound ethics to guide our economy. Otherwise, we will self-destruct in bullying and greed.
Third, longtime congregations are paralyzed by their own infrastructure. Buildings mattered in the stability-seeking years after world wars. Constructing a Gothic pile was a cost of doing business. Now, that Gothic pile has become the business, and maintenance costs are stifling mission and ministry.
Even worse, buildings distort our identity. Look at our Web sites: they show bricks and mortar, not people; they offer guided tours of rooms and grandeur, not calls to mission and knowing God. People are seeking wholeness and faith, not historic architecture. They don't want to pay for deferred maintenance or join arguments over paint colors.
Fourth, like any hierarchical institution, we became obsessed with who gets to run things. Instead of dealing creatively with systemic issues of gender, race and sexuality, we squandered goodwill in fighting over who got ordained. Diversifying seminary enrollment has proven to be a meaningless response to injustice and deprivation in the world.
Meanwhile, with our focus on ordination and not on institutional vitality, the promise of expanding roles for laity got sidetracked into bickering over Sunday duties.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. Churches are human institutions, and we can change our ways. Denominations don't have to be overhead. Permanence doesn't have to be our god. Buildings don't have to control us. Ordination doesn't have to be our battle.
The bad news is that changing our ways means changing our ways. Institutions with long histories of resisting change aren't likely to choose life now. They might have to die first. Just as the Gospel says.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, consultant and leader of workshops. His book, "Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask," was published by Morehouse Publishing. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. His Web site is www.onajourney.org
© 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.