|Confronting controversy with character and grace.|
April 1, 1998
Why New Churches Are Growing
Will Willimon on a ground-breaking book
A few years ago, teaching for a summer in Southern California, I visited numerous congregations of my denomination. They were mostly graying, aging—obviously dwindling and depressed.
Why are we mainliners doing so poorly here? I wondered.
"Californians aren't religious anymore," I was informed by denominational leaders. "We are too socially progressive, too religiously sophisticated for most people here," explained others.
I concluded that what they meant was too boring.
California sociologist of religion Donald E. Miller is, like me, a product of mainline Protestantism. In the 1980s he wrote The Case for Liberal Christianity, beating the, if not yet dead, terminally ill horse of liberal Christendom. After that book he decided to "shelve all attempts at writing theology until I was retired and had earned the right to engage in speculative reasoning." Miller joined a liberal Episcopal congregation "where I did not need to check my mind at the door when I entered to worship."
Some of his undergraduates got him interested in a new phenomenon on the American religious scene, churches that "preached an old-fashioned gospel, but their music and form of worship were radically contemporary, and their mood was quite different from that of the typical evangelical and fundamentalist church I had visited."
Armed with a grant from the Lilly Endowment (that esteemed subsidizer of academic commentary on mainline decline), Miller began his journey into Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, and Hope Chapel churches—all born in Southern California. The result is Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (University of California Press, $27.50), an engaging contribution by Miller to the debate on church growth and decline in the United States.
Power to the people
It is fun to watch Miller entering these congregations as an outsider, curiously poking about in their inner lives, attempting to decipher the sources of their phenomenal growth. He tells a great story of churches that confound simplistic labels and conventional wisdom. These Southern California churches make heavy demands upon people; their worship is rock-'n-roll but their theology and ethics sometimes seem derived from another century.
They do exorcism, anointing, tough preaching, all to the heartfelt beat of Maranatha Music. These churches not only espouse slogans about loving the poor (the bane of my denomination), they are reaching out to the poor, saying, "We need the poor more than they need us." Although all these churches seem dependent upon the visionary, charismatic personalities who founded them, Miller stresses that "they are democratizing access to the sacred by radicalizing the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers."
The theme of democratization runs throughout Miller's story. He contrasts the bureaucratic, top-down style of older, mainline Protestant churches with these newer churches' lean-and-loose, ad hoc organizational styles that give much power to the laity. Indeed, this difference in organization is perhaps, for Miller, the major difference between the older Protestant mainline and these churches that will dominate "postdenominational Christianity" in North America. Miller is high on these churches, saying they thrive because "they are successfully mediating the sacred, bringing God to people and conveying the self-transcending and life-changing core of all religion."
Weaseling out of theology
Despite his references to the theological factors at work within these congregations, Miller reveals himself to be, finally, a sociologist—one who assumes a functional, instrumental view of religion. Liberalism is a hard habit to get over.
That is, Miller praises these congregations for giving people what they need, for helping them to make sense of their often confusing lives. Isn't that about as much as liberalism ever conceded to the Christian faith—that Jesus helps us to make sense of ourselves?
What Miller explains as a sociological phenomenon, these churches name as an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Miller decides that all of these churches do well with boomers and busters because they respond "to the therapeutic, individualistic, anti-establishment themes of the counterculture," incorporating these themes into their congregational life.
Is such incorporation faithful to Christian orthodoxy? Are these churches a protest against the culture or a capitulation to it?
Of course, a sociologist can't ask these questions. I kept wishing Miller would venture a judgment. I expect my answers to these questions would only lead Miller to charge that I was exactly the sort of elitist, bureaucratized, establishmentarian of the mainline who resists these young churches' delightful "democratizing of the sacred."
Social scientists are forever attempting to weasel out of doing theology. Trouble is, they often do theology when they don't know they are doing it. It is the sociologist's penchant to ascribe constantly to certain anthropological factors causality that Christians ascribe to theological sources.
For instance, in discussing the conversion experiences of many who worship at Calvary Chapel, Miller tends to stress the role of social networks and prior psychological factors, even though he does admit to the "ideological appeal" of these churches. His explanation is too thin to account for the dramatic turnaround many of these changed persons report.
In the end, though he attempts to eschew theological judgments, he has really made one—Christianity is a helpful resource whereby many find meaning in their lives. I dare say this rather anemic view of religion wouldn't sit well with the very churches Miller presumes to study. What Miller explains as a sociological phenomenon, these churches name as an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Cloning Chuck Smith?
I hasten to add that Reinventing American Protestantism is full of insight and practical wisdom. Miller's study will stimulate debate among church observers for some time. It is as much about mainline church decline as it is about the growth of Hope Chapel, Calvary Chapel, and the Vineyard. Miller helped me understand these churches better and in a more positive light. Even more, he has helped me better understand the dilemma of my mainline denomination.
I wish the leaders and decision makers in my flagging denomination would read this book. Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel sounds like the sort of rip-roaring, creative, risky church leader whom we need to clone in vast numbers. John Wimber was just the sort of wild man with whom the apostle Paul would feel affinity.
Whether the mainline has the will or the wisdom to learn lessons from these churches remains to be seen. Miller's last sentence of the book: "Can the mainline church survive the twenty-first century? I believe it can if it is willing to reinvent itself, taking seriously the need for organizational reform and the importance of fostering life-changing encounters with the sacred."
-William H. Willimon
Dean of the Chapel
Tracking members and Bible characters
We test-drive 3 programs
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||Bibleland.com (New Kids Media, $29.99)
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assistant editor, Computing Today
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.