Today, Diana Butler Bass responded to a New York Times column by Ross Douthat. They were both offering interpretation of the numeric decline in denominations in relation to political leanings and/or movements in “liberal” denominations. I would offer two additional pieces of statistical information for the discussion. First, Bass is not a sociologist trained in statistical analysis. Second, Douthat is not a sociologist trained in statistical analysis. I suspect that a sociologist grounded in statistical analysis would say that there are too many confounding variables to deduce a correlation between one aspect of a denomination’s character (like it’s perceived political leanings) and its rise or fall in attendance or membership.
I do wonder to what extent the denominational numbers matter. To me it’s a bit like the reporting of box office receipts for a movie or the number of viewers of a TV show. Those numbers do not tell me whether I will enjoy the film or not. Numerical decline of denominations tells us very little—if anything—about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Personally, I have found that the harder I try to fulfill the expectations of a category—Progressive, Liberal, Evangelical, Emergent, Missional—the less faithful I actually am. And when I think I’ve got some responsibility for the “scores” of the groups to which I’ve been trying to uphold, my faithfulness goes down even more. I’ll admit that I did try for many years to make sure I really was an Evangelical. It’s not without some grief that I say, “I’ve given that up. I’m ready to just be Christian.”
Bryan Feille once asked the question, “What’s the difference between tradition and traditionalism?” By “tradition” he meant the theological sense of one’s cultural-historical faith stream (i.e., Stone-Campbell, Reformed, Western). Tradition is a theological resource if it is part of the dialogue. It becomes traditionalism when we feel that we must adhere to our cultural-religious stream no matter what. For example, when the Stone-Campbell way of doing things overrides any other considerations. When we choose to be ecumenical simply because we think that’s what in our DNA to do. So too with contemporary categorizations: if they help our conversation, great. If we perceive that the loss of membership in some cultural grouping is an actual loss of something precious, then we risk relinquishing our own discernment processes. We hand them over to the trends advocated in our grouping. Faithfulness involves discernment. The groups to which we think we belong can be helpful as theological resources but become the sole mechanisms of decision. The political or apolitical nature of a person and/or congregation’s discipleship must emerge out of their discernment—out of their attempts to be faithful in a complex world. That shouldn’t be conditioned by what it might do to the scoreboard for our group or denomination. I would argue that the conversation between Douthat and Bass is the wrong conversation to begin with. For the average reader of news media about religion, the issue of denominational decline is news only in the sense that movie receipts and TV ratings are news–quantitative trivia not qualitative value. The question for them needs to be how to respond faithfully in a world where cultural assumptions toward religion in general has changed–how to provide a faithful witness in a pluralistic context.
That’s not to say that numbers don’t matter. As a local church pastor, I can’t worry a about declines in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a whole. I can—indeed must–accept responsibility for the decline in average worship attendance at First Christian Church, Arlington, Texas—which has been painfully significant during my tenure. In terms of faithfulness, here’s where I think we stand: I serve a congregation of people willing to love and support one another. It is a congregation deserving of growth because it is a congregation that does good for the people who are here. It is a body of faithful Christians who can be entrusted with the care of new Christians. The biggest reason we have declined is that I haven’t paid enough attention to growth. I don’t think that’s because of my politics, theology, or denominational leaning. There are several reason for this decline but the one I bear the greatest responsibility for are the following: (1) we have not created an invitational culture—one where people invite other people to worship with them; (2) we have a small and ineffective response to visitors after people visit; (3) our services—both traditional and contemporary—rely too heavily on insider language. Denominational declines are ultimately the aggregates of thousands of local churches that are in decline. Each of those local churches have unique reasons for their decline and must make their own decisions about how to respond. These are the confounding variables that the analysis of Bass and Douthat do not account for, in fact cannot account for, in their analysis.