protestant mainline decline

The Wooster Report

by Jeff Gill
A beautiful late September morning. In fact, not quite morning.
Like many dads, I wake up just before the alarm, get dressed in the dark, and drive out in pre-dawn murk.
Soon, though, the rising sun slants light through autumnal banks of mist and fog, in valleys and between ridges as the road curves along. An hour, another hour, and all the mysterious haze burns off. Amish buggies and roadside farm markets, community festivals and the occasional detour.
I’m on my way, as I realize I’ve been on so many September or October Saturdays, to a regional or general event where I’ll hear opening announcements, a long introduction, and then a keynoter who usually has a book out recently. And I go, against all evidence to the contrary, in hopes that this time I will hear a speaker who will change the church, whose counsel will uplift and inspire me, a program which will have a relevance to the congregation where I’m serving or the region that I’m part of, so that the sacrifice of this fine day, away from family and leisure and personal preferences, will be blessed with a utility in my ministry.

I'm looking for someone to save us. The old, old story.

That’s been the story, anyhow. Today is a bit different. I’m going because Derek Penwell is speaking in Wooster, for an elder’s workshop. He does, in fact, happen to have a book out (I’m about to buy my third copy, in fact, this one to be inscribed no matter who I have to push aside), and it’s about the state and fate of the church (writ small or large, either way), but I’m not going with any expectations.
Unlike many also heading to this event, I’ve read the book; over the last couple of years I’ve read Derek’s thoughts, and I’m sanguine about the likelihood of him coming up with a panacea, a solution for the parlous state of the mainline church in general or the Disciples of Christ in particular.
And my worry is borne out, to jump ahead a bit, in that the questions and comments from the floor are more than a bit clueless. Yes, I’m tired, I’m frustrated, I’m cranky. I should speak more kindly of my peers and fellow congregational leaders in the Body of Christ.
But seriously, clueless. Clueless as to what’s just been said by the keynoter, and tin-eared as to the challenge of the day even without the framing assembled by the speaker.
On the speaker, a quick note. Derek, you suck at selling your book. People who have books for sale who do programs? They mention the book by title, in full, about every third paragraph. By which I do not mean a rhetorical “every third paragraph,” but I mean each time two paragraphs of content have been spoken, you must invoke your latest title in full during the third. Other books you wrote earlier which may be offered for sale can only have titles name-checked every nine or ten paragraphs, but the new book has to keep getting mentions.
I believe Derek mentioned his book twice, sort of. In three sections of presentation covering almost five hours. And in his on-screen slides? The cover was shown not at all, and I don’t recall even seeing the title mentioned in the graphics at all. Dude.
Sell the book, okay?
Ah, the discussion and the response. The talk could be, cruelly, summed up in the phrase “Love the body you’re in.” Like body image issues from Barbie dolls, or expectations from the Disney Princess cosmos, you can start to jones for a bod not your own, and assume any non-optimal outcome is due to your lack of plastic surgery.
“Love the body you’re in.” Especially when it’s the Body of Christ. So BE the body, and go do things as and with that body/Body, “making the most of the time.” Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a body, so don’t worry about that. Go be the Body.
When the good people of Ohio and the blessed elders of the Christian Churches therein spoke, I confess to being disheartened. Why? Because as is so often the case there were less questions than statements, and the statements were either akin to Kevin Bacon’s character in the climactic scene of “Animal House,” or they were shouting the exceptional exceptions of their preferred aspect of the Body of Christ . . . and insisting that what’s needed is for more church people to “come to us.” The very attractional model Derek had gently critiqued a few moments earlier.
Men, come to men’s events, and all shall be well, or at least better. Youth and older folk who can be counselors, come to camp, and all shall be well, even better. Women, come to women’s stuff, and there we shall find the true path to wellness, or at least betterness. Clergy, come to regional clergy events, and you will have a rich head of full, curly hair, plus your growth in faith and vitality will allow you to facilitate making all things well back home at the congregation’s home place. Cue swelling music and title cards.
Derek was gentle with them, God bless him. He spoke more of the good news and the Boss’ imperatives, aka Jesus the Christ, than did any interlocutor. The audience asked for respect looking back over their achievements, even as the same speakers swiftly and generally condemned social media and tech as not worthy of respect, or use. “Sell it all, and come sit and talk to us.” Rev. Dr. Penwell asked re-directive questions, nudged comments towards the bigger picture, affirmed those speaking out of their own pain, but the reaction to his “and on the other hand” responses was usually more oblivious than appreciative.
“Do what God has gifted you to do where you are, as long as you can” is pretty good counsel. A few prickly rejoinders of “we are, and then some” didn’t outweigh the broader sense that what really struck home was the stark observation “some churches would rather die than make major changes.” That silence was palpable. For reason.
It was a joy for me to meet Derek, editor of Dmergent and all-around good guy and gifted pastor, and former classmate and ongoing friend of my colleague and friend here in Ohio, Rev. Kevin Phipps, whom I got to know through our Commission on Ministry. Kevin and Derek and I have tended to say the same things even before blogs and books and Facebooks confirmed our pre-existing agreements.
But I’d not expected the consensus, at least the vocal consensus, of those in attendance to be so tone-deaf. Derek (or Kevin, or anyone else there) may dispute my account, and it could be circumstances have left me more sardonic and surly than is useful, but every time he’d talk about how we need to not be so needy and clutchy, someone would speak up to sing their own particular song of neediness and clutchtasticism. “If only more people would just come to [insert their preferred program here], things would be better.”
Things will not be better. That’s me, not our speaker, at least not the “official in front of everyone” perspective. We’re in for a winter season in church and faith and culture, and the more we can do to store up some reinforcement, and prepare for a day soon to come, we’ll be ready to survive and gently thrive in a day when our worldview and faith stance will be even more at odds with our surrounding culture than it is right now.
We will, on the other hand, continue to see folks curious to learn what we’re doing, how we do it, and it won’t even be unusual to have some of them come in over weekends to work on projects. But we just can’t count on major church growth through that time. Denominations and regions and most congregations are simply not going to grow over the next ten years or so.
How will we deal with this reality? There are paths forward in this dark wood, but picking the right ones, and not ending up walking past good campsites and off of cliff edges, is going to take some eyes-open, shared perspective, candid-discussioned, reality-based communication. If we’re focused on waiting our turn to make a speech on behalf of our own preferred identity group, we’re going right over and down without even a Wile E. Coyote pinwheeling moment in defiance of gravity.
On the other hand, if we look honestly at ourselves and what each of our congregations and commissions can do to declare the good news of God’s love, proclaimed in our actions and our service, there’s quite future ahead for us. It might be a future that ends in a blaze of “well, how ‘bout that!” . . . but that’s better than “whatever happened to the Disciples, anyhow?”
“They sure went out in a blaze of glory” doesn’t sound that bad in comparison. Plus, we already know that the end of the story is a little further on down the road.