As an organization, we have not had the time or the money to do a scholarly study to determine why some of our affiliate churches thrive and others do not. We do know that the vast majority of our affiliate churches report that after affiliating and posting their church contact information on the TCPC site, the number of people who come to visit that church increases. While the average appears to be somewhere around a 20% increase, some churches have reported as much as a 40% increase in visitors over the period of a year. One small church near a large university reported that almost 100% of their visitors come via people finding their church through the TCPC directory. We have found, however, that simply adding a church’s name to our directory does not necessarily put new members on the rolls. As anyone knows who has been part of the leadership of a church, there is a big difference between visitors and contributing members.
So what is that difference? While we cannot claim to have extensive hard data, over the years we have been able to piece together some fairly consistent characteristics in our thriving churches that have allowed us to draw some conclusions about what is working and what is not in our churches. These conclusions have been supported by studies done by scholars like Hal Taussig in A New Spiritual Home, Diana Butler-Bass in, Christianity for the Rest of Us, Brian D. McLaren in Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. I speak and write about these characteristics on a regularly basis.
However the one characteristic that seems to get overlooked the most often is the need to create an environment for open dialogue about theological and Christological conversation. I am not certain why, but I continue to see this vacuum in too many churches that I visit. I suspect the reason may be that clergy do not want to create any unnecessary conflict or nor do they want to risk the loss of any church members. But it seems strange to me that the latest thinking about the historical Jesus or about the sometimes twisted roots of the Christian church can be found on the front page of Time or Newsweek magazines and other national publications but these things are seldom being discussed in our churches. It is a more than ironic that even though scholars are producing more books and articles challenging us to rethink what it means to be a Christian today, one of the last places you will hear these topics being discussed is in our churches.
One of the things our surveys have demonstrated is that lay people want our churches to address these theological, Christological issues in an open and direct way. They want a safe place to talk about their Christian roots, their religious beliefs, or disbeliefs, and they want a place that will provide meaningful Christian education. Our mail attests to the fact that there are thousands of others (and we estimate millions) that may not be part of a church but are searching for such a place. Ironically as our churches decline in membership and attendance all over the country, in virtually every denomination, the general public seems to have more interest in religion and spirituality. We receive email virtually every day asking for help to find a church that is “not afraid” to talk about a more progressive approach to the Christian traditions and beliefs.
Certainly there are a few more books coming out that scholars have written that can be used for study guides or reading groups in our churches. But generally folks feel that they need some strong, educated leadership for these kinds of undertakings. One exception to that may be the “Living the Questions” (LtQ) DVD series that many church groups have found to be helpful and full of information. The cost of these wonderful materials is sometimes considered a hindrance unless it is shared by the church as part of the Christian Education budget or with a large study group.
Some lay people get so frustrated with what they are not hearing that they write their own books. For two years now we have been marketing a wonderful book written by Bill Buffie and John Charles called, The Christian Pluralist: An Invitation From The Pew. In their introduction they write of this frustration and explain why they decided to write their own account of 21st century Christianity.
We recently introduced a new book written by another lay person, though admittedly, one with a theological degree. William Linden, a corporate attorney for most of his adult life decided that the people in the pews needed some support sorting out the newest scholarship on the historical Jesus. His book, The Historical Jesus for Beginners: A Primer of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship was reviewed on this site last month. (See review.) In the last twenty five years there have been a tremendous number of books written about the historical Jesus that challenge our traditional and orthodox perspectives. But frequently these books have been written by scholars for scholars. This book was written for anyone who is interested in the latest scholarship on Jesus and to ponder how that work might impact their understanding of the Christian faith. It provides an excellent and precise overview for anyone who wants to learn more about this fascinating subject.
One of my favorite books in this genre is written by James Autry, with a forward by Bill Moyers (Looking Around for God). Autry is a former Fortune 500 executive, author and poet. (I have purchased eight of these books for gifts.) He is still a member of a church and has not given up on it in spite of his frustrations. This little book will delight you, challenge you, and touch you as you move through Autry’s prose and poems. If you do not laugh at some point you better check with your doctor. One chapter that is reflective of the frustration in the pew is titled-Preach the Whole Story (and Treat Me Like a Grown-up.) We hear of this same complaint every day in our TCPC offices. Autry closes this jewel of a book by asking five questions that he would love to hear addressed in his church-which alone are worth the price of the book.
I share the first one here:
How could God be loving, generous, and merciful and then arrange for his own son to be tortured and killed? Is this to suggest that this was God’s only-or even best-option for bringing salvation to the world? The atonement theology has never made much sense to me.
There are many ways to approach 21st century Christian adult education. But ignoring the challenging issues and questions that have been raised by science and scholarship has not worked, is not working and will not work. Maybe that is why so many lay people in our main-line churches are forming small groups in their respective faith communities that have become their church within a church. Maybe that is why more and more lay people are writing their own books and asking the hard questions. And maybe that is why someday we may actually try and address those issues in our church classes and from the pulpits. It could lead to a very exciting and productive reformation.