Last week several different outlets offered a take on the recently released ARIS research. For access to USA Today graphs of the data click here. The information compelled The Christian Science Monitor to include a piece written by Michael Spencer, a.k.a. iMonk. If you are not reading iMonk then you should be. Go over and subscribe to his RSS feed and pay attention.
After reading a few of the opinions on the matter, and having read iMonk’s piece when it came out on his blog, I could not help but think what we witness in the numbers is a “trailing indicator.” In other words, drawing lines from 1990 to 2008 is well and good but rather than help determine the cause it simply points to a decline. Maybe we should have been listening to the “fringes” much sooner.
There is an incessant need to be right in prognostication. Today everyone is suggesting this movement or that movement has lost its steam. In Christian religious circles this translates to announcements of the decline of Mainline denominations allegedly for thier lack of a commitment to the “inerrancy” of Scripture or the death of the Emerging Church for its purported adoption of the “liberal vision.” Maybe so. Maybe not.
What does strike me is we fail to listen to the edges. Listening does not imply, at least for some of us, capitulation. Rather, in the apt description of the value of conversation noted by Scot McKnight a couple of years ago, it means seeing those blind spots we inevitably possess.
Peter Block, in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, contends stuck/retributive communities lock down conversation. Fear predominates. Restorative/transformative communities create possibility and rather than determine beforehand the answer learn to ask good questions opening up new notions of how the community may exhibit health and growth.
What would it have looked like had some in high places listened to the call to move to a relational understanding of truth rather than a purely didactic understanding where “what is believed” is more important than “how it is believed.” Stephen Shields, for example who is no raging liberal, wrote about a “transpropositional” way forward. He could not dismiss statements of truth any more than he was willing to suggest truth held only cerebral-ly transforms a person. You may want to push further than Stephen – and some indeed did and do.
Constant retrenchment fails to understand context. Rather than engagement “with” we seek to retro-fit our current context to a day gone by. Ed Stetzer refers to this action as “context envy and demographic lust.” His intent is to point out where some find themselves in traditional settings live out their dreams of being in a more “hip” place creating un-necessary stress by not living where they are. You could use his quip to consider how many have context envy and demographic lust to a bygone day. Ed notes that most Southern Baptists are prepared should the 1950’s return. There is little wonder people refuse to self-identify with a bygone day that does not hold the peculiarities experienced today. Nearly every discipline undergoes radical change. Rather than embrace the new questions that help shape how we may connect people with the way of Jesus we wax nostalgic and mourn the loss of what was.
I have too many friends who have decided it far better to dis-engage the Christian machine that refuses to account for the complexity of life and faith and still follow the way of Jesus. I would imagine some of those who no longer self-identify with Christianity would maintain their self-identification with Jesus. After all, Dan Kimball suggests they like Jesus but not the church. Could that also embrace the Christian machine that is willing to sell Jesus junk and pass off pablum as challenging the rabid difficulties faced by people today?
Collapsing statistics and self-idenfication only point to an underlying problem and do not a trend make. They simply tell us something is up, or in this case down. What we need to do is listen to those gifted voices from the edge. We need to hear the Jeremiah’s who are calling attention to the end of one understanding of the way the world is to discover the new covenant of a new world. (Brueggemann)
My friend Barry Taylor wrote a piece recently where he described a couple of students who gave reports on Slavo Zizek. It was interesting to note how Barry pointed out the fact that Zizek liked neither the left nor the right. He certainly had/has trouble with free market capitalism. Barry closes by suggesting that rather than announce the victory of the free market over facism and communism, we may be discovering it has just taken longer for the collapse. Could be for all of Evangelicalism finger pointing at the Mainline amounts to the same. The notion that we are better because someone else is worse means very little. This has been the practice of my own tribe.
I can only hope we will begin listening to each other or may we say “even so come evangelical collapse,” for then we will not be able to avoid the clamor for an answer.