"Effective answers to the current situation will require us either revivify the older beliefs and institutions or to invent radically new forms of Christian community."
Well, I had some thoughts, both on the why of decline and on a radical response, so I put up two comments on his blog and thought I'd share them here as well.
Re. the original question “Why? … what has changed..?” to account for the decline, I offer this analogy.
Consider a pond. It grows larger when the inflow exceeds the outflow.
Mainline denominations (like my own Lutheran tribe) previously grew through immigration from the old country and childbirth. (My believing parents had 6 children: 400% church growth!). In addition, societal pressures “herded” people into church as a necessary entry point into civic community, as you noted in point 1 of the initial post.
All of these have changed and no longer feed people automatically into our congregations. The “tributaries” have largely dried up. One additional tributary is conspicuous by its absence: Evangelism. It seems never to have been a substantial feeder to the mainline pond. It’s been easier to rely on the other tributaries.
On the outflow side, there has also been change. People still die, of course, presumably at more or less the same rate. (If anything there’s been increased longevity which prolongs the life of the pond.) What’s changed is the erosion of the banks that have kept the water in place. The pond “leaks” like never before. Again, this is related to the sociological landscape you mentioned in 1 above. It is no longer a scandal for people to leave the church and have no formal “institutional” spiritual life.
So: less inflow, more outflow; shrinking pond.
Re. your second question: “HOW radical do the changes need to be to respond to the reality of the situation that the mainline is facing today?”
Pretty radical I’d say.
For starters, we’ll have to discover how to do evangelism in our current context. Just doing evangelism at all will be a big leap for a lot of us! (Among Lutherans, it’s often noted that we invite someone to church, on average, once every 20 years. Maybe 30.) Add to that the fact that our context is radically different than what we’ve known and it’s a tall order.
But more than that, I think we need a radical revision in the way we “do church.” (That really should be “the way we be church” which is unfortunately awkward to say.)
Conventional congregational life – across the denominations and across the decades of decline – centers around a weekly large group gathering. For most, this is their primary if not sole experience of Christian community. Yet in these gatherings, it is essentially impossible to experience the “one anothers” that are truly at the heart of being a people sharing a life of faith together. That kind of substantive community requires smaller groups to flourish.
We invest vast amounts of time, energy and money into maintaining a weekly event, in the hope that substantive community will arise around it.
We need to invert that. We need to invest primarily into nurturing small, self-reproducing faith communities where people actually grow as disciples. That’s a radical change.
Whether this results in larger gatherings arising from the small communities or not is secondary, icing on the cake.
Can existing, conventional congregations can make that kind of transition? It seems doubtful, though it would be exciting to try. Whether they can serve as a launching pad for new expressions of Christian community seems more likely, and I’m hopeful there. But whether they can or not, I think these communities are on their way, thank God. We need them. We have a lot of Kingdom work to do!