Journal examines anxieties and resilience of US churches

August 25, 2010

NEW YORK

What does the future hold for the institutional church in the United States, particularly “mainline Protestant” churches that once dominated the country’s cultural landscape?

There is no single answer to the question posed in Reflections, a magazine published by the Yale University Divinity School, which offers a variety of perspectives from scholars, clergy and laity.

Yale Divinity School is located in New Haven, Conn.

In an essay placing the U.S. religious scene in context, the Rev. John Lindner, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister who is director of external relations for Yale Divinity School, writes that media accounts about the declining numbers of members of so-called mainline churches are missing a key point.

He argues that it was “the success of mainline Protestant churches in promoting a message of [ecumenical] unity that helped to bring about a new era of pluralism and inclusion, even to the extent of triggering declines in denominational loyalties.”

That has meant adjustments for the institutional Protestant churches, but this is challenging churches, often in healthy ways, asserts Lindner.

“When you’re in a minority, you have to be more intentional about what you do,” he said in an interview with ENInews.

Lindner said that in the nearly one year since it was published, in late 2009, the issue — entitled “How Firm a Foundation? Churches Face the Future” — has prompted keen debate and interest.

“It started conversation. It struck a chord,” said Lindner, formerly of the National Council of Churches, and who has worked with the World Council of Churches.

Among many who lead churches, there is “anxiety about the future as the demographic and cultural shape of the Church changes,” the divinity school’s dean, Harold W. Attridge, writes in an introduction to the issue.

For the Rev. Dwight Andrews, a Yale Divinity School graduate, congregations are perhaps “the last institutions standing that have the inner reserves and counter values to defy the corrosions of 21st century culture.”

The practice of worship still has the ability of “creating the sense of community, something society is fast losing,” writes Andrews, the pastor of First Congregational Church in Atlanta.

Still, “the quality of congregational life” is under pressure, he notes. The “over-booked life” and “multi-tasking” of many affluent and middle-class people in the United States is “pulling at the fabric of a cohesive faith community.”

In a section that reported on a 2009 conference at Yale on the future of U.S. congregational life, several clergy spoke of the challenges of serving the church in a rapidly changing environment.

One of them, the Rev. Sarah S. Scherschligt, associate pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, Md. noted that fast changing technology challenges churches.

They need to be “quicker about understanding the technical options — YouTube, Twitter, DVDs,” she stated.

“But we must not lose our identity or just strive to be the next big thing and lose the Bible.

You can’t put the Bible into 140 Twitter characters,” she said, referring to the online short message service. “To me, our identity still means being a community marked by forgiveness and self-sacrifice in working for justice.”

Contents online at Yale University Divinity School's Reflections website.

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