I have resisted writing at length about last week’s Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church U.S.A. general conventions; I hesitate to do so even today, for, although a life-long Episcopalian who has preached in United Methodist churches and attended (albeit for a brief time) a Presbyterian seminary, I’m not sure: a) if it’s even my business to render an opinion, and b) that it even matters what the these ecclesiatical bodies do anymore, given the lack of influence they have both on their membership and society as a whole.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the only ones who still care what The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) do at their conventions are the rapidly-shrinking numbers of people who still call themselves members of these churches, for both not only have ceased to be a driving force in mainline American Prostestantism (having been replaced long ago by non-denominational “megachurches” who continue to thrive and grow by leaps and bounds), they have become virtually irrelevant (if not non-existent) as well, given their seemingly-innate ability to live in a never-ending state of controversy and chaos while turning a blind eye to the members they are losing in ever-increasing numbers.
Why this sad state of affairs? In my humble view there are two primary reasons:
1) A general de-emphasis of sin in any and all of its forms, which has resulted in: a) a watered-down commitment to the historical and moral teachings of the Church, which in turn has: b) reduced the overall meaning and importance of the sacraments of the Church as a vehicle by which the Church has importance and relevance in peoples’ lives.
2) The increasing willingness (and indeed, desire) to embrace a radical, so-called “progressive” gay/lesbian social agenda that seeks to undermine (and I would add, destroy) 2000 years of historical and moral teachings by hiding its agenda behind the oh-so-trendy and comfortable buzzwords of “diversity” and “acceptance”.
And I’m not the only one with this view. A decade ago, in his ground-breaking book “The Empty Church”, Thomas C. Reeves pinpointed exactly the challenges faced by traditional churches who abandoned the teachings of traditional Christianity to instead market themselves as “inclusive”, “diverse”, and “welcoming” as a path to renewal. And Colleen Carroll, in her book “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy“, provides numerous examples (anecdotal, but powerful nevertheless) of young people rejecting the churches of their youth and turning towards Roman Catholicism and orthodoxy in their personal search for direction, knowledge, meaning, and sacredness in their spiritual lives and church-going experiences.
They say nature abhors a vacuum, and in the case of TEC, PCUSA and others of their kind, the kind of people whose youth, commitment, and, yes, money that can invigorate dying parishes and denominations: young families, white- and blue-collar professionals, and new arrivals from foreign countries and cultures are voting with their feet and choosing religious institutions unafraid to teach and proclaim a strong belief system based on (gasp!) traditional Christian values. Just as important, these institutions expect their members to reciprocate, whether through tithing, ministry, or evangelism, in their personal lives and communities. Rather than worship at an altar of post-modern relativism erected on the dust of late ’60s/early ’70s progressive liberalism, these people are unafraid to embrace and proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior, leaving TEC, PCUSA, and those like them older, grayer, and at the mercy of radical gay/lesbian activists hell-bent on breaking any and every kind of perceived barrier in the name of inclusiveness and diversity as they themselves define it.
My good friend Dona and I have had this argument over and over, and it’s become increasingly clear to me – as it has to those in TEC who call themselves orthodox, conservative, or Anglo-Catholic – that there really is no more wiggle-room for compromise on these things. Given the decisions made by TEC and PCUSA in their most recent conventions, both denominations have made it clear the direction they intend to go, and the once-meandering brook of progressive liberalism that in such a short period of time has become a rushing river will further accelerate into a tidal wave that will soon swamp and extinguish all remaining vestiges of orthodoxy and tradition. On the TEC side, David Virtue believes the 2006 Episcopal convention is paving the way for an alternative worldwide communion. On the PCUSA side, highly-respected theologian Mark D. Roberts believes it’s the beginning of end of the church he once knew and loved.
The question is: Does it really matter? I mean, let’s face it, the old paradigm associated with the traditional church has, in almost every way, manner shape, and form, been completely and utterly swept away by a highly-mobile society and the information age. No longer are people bound to the geographical and theological confines of a given denomination. Whether it be the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Baptist, there are virtually hundreds of splinter churches available to anyone who has the time and passion to check them all out. Much like the modern-day supermarket, the Christian marketplace features a virtual cornucopia of options to choose from. Whether or not this is a good thing is something that can be debated, but it certainly can’t be ignored.
One indicator of the failure of mainline Protestant churches to attract, promote and teach the faith and faithful is the rapid growth of house churches. Jim Rutz, the chairman of Megashift Ministries and founder of Open Church Ministries has long been a major proponent of the house church as an alternative to the traditional mainline Protestant model. He notes in this article for WorldNet Daily that the house church community in the U.S. ranks second (behind the Roman Catholic Church and ahead of the Southern Baptist Convention) in overall attendance.
Please don’t think of the house church as a new fad. For the first 300 years of Christianity, house churches were the norm. In fact, church buildings were quite rare until the fourth century, when the power-hungry Roman Emperor Constantine suddenly outlawed house church meetings, began erecting church buildings with Roman tax money, and issued a decree that all should join his Catholic Church. If you want to stick to a biblical model, the house church is your only choice.
In China, the world’s largest church (120 million) is 90 percent based in homes. The cover story in this week’s World magazine (June 24) is on how Christian business leaders in China are beginning to change the whole situation in that country. Yes, even while Christians in many provinces are hunted down and tortured, CEOs of corporations in areas with freedom are changing the way government looks at Christianity. That is major.
Bottom line: Worldwide, the original church is back, re-creating the biblical model: “Day after day, they met by common consent in the Temple Courts and broke bread from house to house.” (Acts 2:46) God is again pouring out His power on plain folks, bringing a megashift â€“ not in our doctrine, but in our entire lifestyle.
People can get up in arms about the direction (or lack thereof) of the church or churches they grew up in, but the fact of the matter is that everything has changed, and people have the right – and, in the interest of their souls, the obligation – to pursue any alternative that draws them closer to God. With all the options there are out there, one no longer has to “stew in a pew” and put up with teachings and doctrines they believe counter to their own belief systems.
Failing denominations like TEC and PCUSA that have hitched their wagons to the vague and shallow teachings and promises of post-modern relativism may well continue to exist (and, in some cases, even continue to thrive), but the sands are shifting away from them. What will be left when the day comes when the majority of their dioceses and synods are broke, and their beautiful churches virtually empty and unable to maintain their costly upkeep, no one can say. But that day will come, and those who have brought these once-vibrant and vital institutions to that sorrowful place in time will have only themselves to blame.