Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mainline Morass Viewed Through ABC Lenses

The reasons why Americans have been migrating away from the seven denominations popularly known as "mainline," including the ABCUSA are articulated clearly in Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity by Dave Shiflett Sentinel HC, 224 pp., $23.95. Using a breezy interview style, Shiflett patches together spiritual journeys of several people to make his case for why the mainline has rapidly become a sideline in American Christianity.

As reviewer Mark Tooley describes it: "Shiflett anecdotally relates how liberal Protestantism, once America's dominant religious force, is exhausted, spiritually, politically, and demographically. The pilgrims he traces--Weekly Standard writer and senior editor Andrew Ferguson, writer Frederica Matthewes-Green, conservative publisher Al Regnery, Southern Baptist leaders Albert Mohler and Richard Land, former Nixon aide Charles Colson, and an evangelical preacher who was present at the Columbine shootings, respectively found peace in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Baptist conservativism, and evangelicalism."

A more graphic way of viewing the trend would be to examine the actual "resident membership" reported by Valley Forge (NOT the inflated total membership number often used as a metric for assessing the size of the denomination). The graph presented at the top of this blog, along with its distressingly downward trend, was designed, scaled, and published by the ABCUSA. It reveals the clear decline about which conservatives have been claiming comes as a direct consequence of doctrinal confusion and moral latitudinarianism in the ABCUSA.

Today one of my friends on the left (we might call him "Rev. Dr. Ethically Sensitive") helped me comprehend what motivates Valley Forge types to cling so tenaciously to their party line despite empirical evidence that it has been killing the denomination. He observed that an unusually large number of ABC national leaders are either southern expatriates or persons who had their formative spiritual experiences in the cauldron of the civil rights struggle. That certainly applies to key figures such as Dr. Roy Medley, Rev. Cheryl Wade, and Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins III.

For Dr. Ethically Sensitive and many of the other "expats" from the south, the national ABC structure has accomplished something of genuine significance. In a world of ethnic polarization, the ABCUSA has been able to bring peoples of all ethnicities to the table where they have both a voice and a vote. Accomplishing this enormous feat came at the price of structural artifices such as quotas, strict rotations, and procedural rules insuring that diversity would be honored and observed. Dr. Ethically Sensitive fears that the dismantling of the ABCUSA, whether through spinning off disgruntled regions or adopting a type of the Michigan regional board suggestion of returning to a pre-1907 structure, would destroy this fragile flower of ethnic diversity.

What many of those who lived under the oppression of Jim Crow laws in the south (or who came up through the ranks of the "movement" in the 1960s) seek is a meaningful model of racial reconciliation among all of God's children. All of the Rube Goldberg SOPs, standing rules, and quotas in the ABCUSA were designed to produce an environment where such reconciliation might take place.

Ironically, while large numbers of the "progressive" congregations in the east show meager single digit non-white memberships (one vocal leader of the cause in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has only 3% non-white membership) many of the PSW congregations are quite ethnically diverse. The church I belong to, for example, boasts 28 ethnic groups and only 20% white membership. Our boards also reflect this diversity with only 2 whites on the ruling board. In the PSW, ethnic diversity is accomplished by organic rather than organizational techniques.

Nevertheless, Dr. Ethically Sensitive's comments were an epiphany for me. Most evangelicals -- this one included -- probably do not give adequate attention to the reasons why the left clings so stubbornly to their positions, even in the face of declining membership. Before now some of us have even proffered the suggestion of a "remnant" mentality as a partial explanation. Trying to comprehend the situation from the perspective of deep formative experiences in the south helps enlighten an otherwise inscrutable conundrum. It also demonstrates why some of our national leaders refuse to yield, even as the threat of schism becomes increasingly likely. They simply do not believe that they can surrender ground at this point; their entire adult lives have been committed to a social experiment (e.g., becoming the "most ethnically diverse mainline denomination"). They see the maintenance of the ABCUSA as it is as critical to engineering an environment where racial reconciliation can be modeled and lived out in some way.

Sadly, while Dr. Ethically Sensitive's observations carry the ring of truth as an explanation, they offer no optimism for resolving our conflicts amicably. We evangelicals are similarly incapable of yielding ground on biblical authority for reasons at least equally fervently felt. While the baggage of the left may help us understand their lemming-like organizational behavior, it does not explain their relative indifference to issues of biblical authority and personal sin. Nor does it provide us with a roadmap for moving toward any kind of rapprochement. As Shiflett has observed, the exodus from mainline denominations appears unstoppable.

Dennis E. McFadden

[His Barking Dog speaks only for your humble blogger; not for the PSW, any other entity within its boundaries, or even for my good friend, Dr. Ethically Sensitive]

1 comment:

Dave Miller said...

Thank you Dennis for such an informative and honest post. I have felt myself that many who are part of the "stay" crowd, are in fact doing so because they feel they owe the ABC a debt of gratitude for standing with them in their hour of need. If this is true, one can understand the reluctance to distance oneself from a past ally in their time of need.

Regarding the statistics you have, I think I would say that they represent what happens to an organization when it tries to be all things to all people. If you are constantly trying to never offend anyone, and meet everyone's needs, you usually end up with a muddled mess that serves no one, which is what we have right now.