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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

New Ways of Believing, Behaving & Belonging

Following up on my March 18  "Gutenberger or Googler?" post, I'd like to share this, which is from Diana Butler Bass, a Christian sociologist whose studies of the mainline Protestant churches are incisive, but also notably lacking in the "sky is falling" panic some other commentators display.  Monmouth Presbytery leaders will remember Diana from the leadership-training event she led for us several years back.

I find Len Sweet's distinction between Gutenbergers and Googlers to be a useful distillation of a whole lot of more complicated material about generational differences in religious participation, most of which has been out there for some time.  It may be useful to consider Diana's three sets of questions (below) as a template, and lay them on top of Len's Gutenberger vs. Googler distinction.

The first set of questions, I'd say, are those typically asked by Gutenbergers, and the second by Googlers:


Three deceptively simple questions are at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity--questions of believing, behaving, and belonging.

Religion always entails the "3B's" of believing, behaving, and belonging. Over the centuries, Christianity has engaged the 3B's in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases. For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)

But the questions have changed. Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:

1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)

The foci of religion have not changed--believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.

- Diana Butler Bass,  "A Resurrected Christianity?" , The Huffington Post, April 7, 2012.


I'm of the same mind as Diana: that, of all the different categories of churches that are part of the American religious scene, we in the mainline Protestant churches are probably best-positioned to offer the Googlers an alternative to religious practices and traditions they find stifling.  To do so, we're going to have to change, too, of course - but the changes we need to make in denominations like the PC(USA) are not nearly so game-changing as they would be for the Conservative Evangelical, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.

All this reminds me of a pithy little quotation I came across recently.  It's by General Eric Shinseki, the former U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Remember him? He's the one who abruptly went into retirement, after standing his ground against political pressure from civilian hawks like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who were urging him to soften his prediction that several hundred thousand ground troops would be needed to secure Iraq, following the invasion by Coalition forces.  History has proved Shinseki was absolutely right; the number of troops that had to be committed to stabilize Iraq was pretty much what he'd predicted.

All this is to say he's a person who tries to base his prophetic statements on actual facts, not on what's politically expedient in the short term.  Coming from him, therefore, the following quotation is all the more enlightening:

“If you don’t like change,
you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
 - General Eric Shinseki

We in the Mainline Protestant churches have a window of opportunity, in the next few years, to save not only ourselves, but also our particular version of the gospel proclamation, from irrelevance.  Let those who have ears, hear...

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