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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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My Liberal Christian Church Is Not Dying

Posted: 07/22/2012 9:01 am

At the end of my 2004 faith crisis, when I realized that I didn't want to be identified as evangelical, I felt lost. Nobody likes to be labeled, but it's scary to not know where you belong.

It was around this time that I began visiting the local Episcopal church, where friends I respected -- smart, bespectacled types with good taste in books and music -- had already found their places in the pews. There, I was surprised to find that I loved the liturgy. I grew up in charismatic churches, attended by an inordinate amount of former Catholics who left the faith of their families, declaring it stale, spiritually dead and too ritualistic to allow for any movement of the spirit. I grew up among ex-Catholic Catholic bashers.

When I began attending Catholic high school and was forced to attend mass semi-regularly, I was prepared to be bored and maybe even a bit offended. But I wasn't. I remember talking to my mom one day after school and telling her that I might have felt the spirit there in that multi-purpose auditorium where the services were held. Sometime between the short homily and communion, where I sat awkwardly with the Asian kids as our Catholic friends climbed over us to reach the aisle, I felt something like the hair-raising tingle that I knew only from prayer services and youth rallies.

But I guess I forgot about all this when I went away to Christian college. I settled back into the praise bands, projector screens and emotive worship songs. Though, I never could raise my hands or "speak in tongues" again.

So the liturgy I experienced at the Episcopal church reminded me of the quiet movement of the spirit I remembered feeling in high school, except this time I could actually participate in the eucharist. It took some time before my wife and I settled comfortably in the Episcopal church -- when we moved to New York we followed the requisite path to Redeemer, than to a Redeemer plant, before remembering, just at the nick of time, that we felt most at home as Episcopalians.

And there, in the two churches we've been actively involved in these past years -- first in Jersey City and now in Cambridge, Mass. -- I've been delighted to find many young post-evangelical types like me. They share my story of moving away from the churches they grew up in, searching around for a place to belong, and finally finding a home. But, thankfully, I don't just find people like me. In each of these churches, my wife and I have been delighted to be a part of richly diverse communities where we don't check our differences at the door, but celebrate them in eclectic masses filled with songs sung in tongues -- and here I mean tongues as in the languages of our fellow parishioners.

So, I found it difficult to square this admittedly anecdotal experience with Ross Douthat's death nell of a column in the New York Times this past weekend. I can't argue with the numbers, and Douthat is not the first to recount them. Certainly attendance in the Episcopal church is decreasing, but, as many of the critics of Douthat's piece have pointed out, church attendance is decreasing across the board. But what most disturbed me about Douthat's assessment is his suggestion that Episcopal church's self-conscious progressivism, as he calls it, is the cause of this decline. On first reading, I wanted to reject this. This is precisely what drew my friends and I to the church, I argued in my head.

Then, I stopped arguing. I started to square this assertion with some other data I'd read recently, and some that Douthat himself includes in his column. He notes, "The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message." And I remembered a conversation I had over breakfast in Tribeca with a fellow blogger of the more conservative persuasion. We agreed that conservative churches, for a number of reasons, are better at growing their numbers. I suggested that they do this by providing a salve for our most basic ills -- our fear of change and difference, our need to be told what to do, our aversion to gray areas.

If these are the churches that grow, should it be any surprise that a denomination that chooses to live in the gray, that welcomes diversity, and promises no respite from controversy and questioning, should see its numbers shrink at a greater rate than its conservative counterparts? And why are we measuring the success of what should be a counter-cultural institution by its popularity?

While I can't argue that the Episcopal church's membership is declining, I do take issue with several others of Douthat's poorly supported claims. It's always dangerous to make the kind of across the board assertions that he makes at the end of his second paragraph about the Episcopal church, "But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes." This is particularly dangerous when talking about a denomination that has a great deal of flexibility at its core, as indicated (but not mentioned in Douthat's column) by the recent news out of The General Convention of the Episcopal Church that ministers have discretion over whether or not they choose to bless same sex unions.

But more annoying to me, perhaps because it hits closer to home, is his unsupported suggestion that "instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church's dying has proceeded apace." Though there is solid evidence that church attendance is decreasing (dying is, of course, just sensationalizing the matter), he provides no proof that the church is not attracting a younger, more open minded demographic. It is conceivable that while attendance is decreasing, young, open-minded people are becoming attracted to the church. Again, I know it's just anecdotal -- you can bet I'll be doing a bit of research on this -- but my experience works against Douthat's claim.

And I think it's bigger than me and my friends. Others have noticed the attraction that former-evangelicals feel toward liturgical worship, and many do find their home in the Episcopal church.

But the bottom line is, though it may seem self-evident that declining church attendance is evidence of something gone wrong, would we rather see churches that accommodate society's ills grow? Isn't it more likely that a faith that asks more than we can naturally give, that compels us to believe in things we can't see, and calls us to live in ways that are counter to our own self interests, would find itself at odds with the prevailing culture?

In my experience, the Episcopal church doesn't ask parishioners to agree wholesale with every precept in the Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes this is frustrating, as in a recent confirmation class I attended where a classmate intimated that she wasn't sure she believed in sin. The old evangelical in me wanted to shake her shoulders and suggest she leave. But mostly this means that we journey together, each at different places and constantly extending grace to one another. This is not a great growth model, but it sure looks a lot like the kingdom Jesus describes.

 
 
 

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