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The Purpose of Doctrine is Not Church Growth (or, A Correction to @RNS)

Tom Krattenmaker over at Religion News Service wrote the following a while back in a piece unfortunately titled, “Why a stout theological creed is not saving evangelical churches”:jesus crying

For many years now, it’s been treated as common knowledge in some circles that the liberal beliefs of mainline churches have been the instruments of their decline. As the story goes, if you want to know why the Episcopalians, Lutherans and others like them  have suffered precipitous drops in members and cultural clout since the 1960s, you need look no further than their acceptance of society’s changing sexual mores, women’s equality and so on.

Conservative churches and their strict, unbending doctrine, we’re told, are why they have held onto, and have even grown, their numbers.

The whole piece is worth a read, only so you can follow me as I dissect it.  The bottom line: this is not so much a piece of helpful analysis as it is a thinly veiled exercise in schadenfreude (rejoicing in someone else’s misery) by someone who is attempting to be a leading “secular” voice.  In other words, he’s simply rejoicing that his enemy (religion) appears to be in retreat.

A few points:

  • The headline – “a stout theological creed” is misleading.  Free churches, represented by the Southern Baptists he cites, are non-creedal.  A journalist of religion should have better grasp on the language of religious practice and denominational history than this.
  • The confusion of doctrine and social ethics is unhelpful.  Evangelicals make it too, and I’ve talked about it before.  But all the historical creeds deal with primary doctrine: the nature of God, the resurrection of Christ, etc.  It’s hard to know if Mohler and Moore, as quoted, are talking about basic doctrine or ethics, but this confusion of terms from the outset is problematic.  Liberal theology and progressive social policy are not the same thing.
  • There are evangelicals who are not Southern Baptists.  What Krattenmaker does not account for is the degree to which an even more precipitous mainline decline is hindered because of a remnant of evangelicals in denominations like the UMC.
  • Krattenmaker seems to have no sense of the global religious scene.  The church is growing rapidly in the developing world, and their Christianity is not the progressive Protestant variety he seems to prefer.  The American Church as a whole may be declining, but the growing global church is largely evangelical and, especially, charismatic.

The point of Christian doctrine is not church growth but identity. The value of creedal Christianity is not a guarantee of growth but the blessing of a tradition not invented last week. There is a “faith once delivered” (Jude 6), there are certain truth claims that are constitutive of Christian worship and piety.  Churches and religions that can pass on their particular faith stories to young people effectively tend to retain more of the next generation.  On this, research by Christian Smith and others is clear that Mormons and evangelicals tend to do this well, while mainline Protestants and Catholics tend to do this badly.  Even in the largest of the Mainline denominations, the UMC, the fastest-growing churches tend to be evangelical.  Krattenmaker and others might not like this fact – Progressive Methodists invent new levels of obfuscation every time these statistics come out – but it makes it no less true.

I can appreciate that Krattenmaker wants to be an emerging voice for “secular” people.  (Although, most folks I know who are secular don’t identify that way.)  But this is self-serving narrative masquerading as informed analysis.  Something that says “Religion News Service” at the top of the page should have better standards.

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Start with Three, and Preserve the Mystery: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)

Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy.  The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!trinity shield

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'”  That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.

The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout.  That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei.  The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and  thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections.  Consider the following:

“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith.  The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)

Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.)  Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa.  This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.  We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (130)

Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description.  What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Spiritual Formation With Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson

by Drew 2 Comments

I used the above song as the entryway into today’s sermon, which primarily drew on Deuteronomy 6.  After the Shema, we find this exhortation:

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. ” (vv. 6-9)

In many American families of yesteryear, it was a tradition to have a family Bible.  Usually this was a large, high-quality, beautifully decorated Bible that doubled as a place to record family history.  At the front would be a genealogy chart, tracking births and deaths, baptisms, confirmations, and marriages.  They were commonly passed down as both a sacred book and a place to record family history.  My parents have one for our family.

Family Bibles were often ornate affairs, signifying their value and place in the home

Family Bibles are still sold today but the tradition is not as widespread.  You can even buy antique ones for a more authentic feel.  I came across this ad on the internet:  No writings, complete Bible. Very clean pages. Very minor wear for its age. Corners are somewhat rubbed. Restored family pages, with the marriage certificate engraved. A very well preserved antique family heirloom!” (Emphasis added)

How did we get to place where Bibles are mere heirlooms?  In Almost Christian, Kenda Dean writes persuasively that the vast majority of youth Christian formation is done via outsourcing.  We drop kids off at youth or Sunday school, we take them to a see Christian band, or we send them on a “mission trip” for a week.  Little of this, if any, is reinforced at home.  While this is the norm in Mainline Protestant and perhaps Catholic homes, it is not so in Mormonism.  Members of the LDS church know that it is the responsibility of every adult in the community, especially parents, to raise up young people in the faith.  Most Mormon teenagers will get up at the crack of down five days a week during high school to attend ‘seminary’, a rigorous exploration of Mormon history, values, and theology.

Speaking from my own (ecclesial) house, Methodist family life can rarely compare to this kind of intentional formation.  How many of us treat our Bibles as heirlooms?  Often Bibles serve as little more than decoration for a shelf or coffee table, pristine and untouched like museum displays.  How do we reclaim, for our own time, the tradition of the family Bible?  For those of us in the Mainline there will be no spiritual revival unless we reclaim the family as the primary locus of Christian education, a place where spiritual formation (.e. prayer, Bible reading, God-talk) is prominent.

How do we do that?

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