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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Weirdly Wonderful

Church attendance in the United States has steadily decreased since the 1960s. 


For some bodies, like the Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, and Catholics, the decline has been modest. But for mainline Protestants, such as Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, the downward trend feels more like the crash of Wall Street stock prices in 1929. 


My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), boasted 4.25 million affiliates in 1965. According to last year’s annual statistics report, current membership stands at just over 1.1 million. That’s an astonishing tumble of more than 75%. The same annual summary reported the closure of 108 churches and the loss of 53,105 members – most of them departing this world for the next.


That’s perhaps the most disheartening feature of the numbers. Almost four in 10 Presbyterians are at least 65 years old. The membership decline (which has averaged 4-5% since 2011) is only going to accelerate. 


What in the world happened? 


Since a number of Christian bodies have shown overall growth since JFK was in the White House, observers can’t say, “Well, it’s happening to everyone.” Analysts point to a theological perspective that was widely embraced by mainline Protestant seminary professors and clergy after World War II. It was high time, they declared, to align Christian teaching with the modern world. 


The result is that an extraordinary percentage of mainline teachers and preachers have become what Christians of any previous century would have called “unbelievers.”


Specifically, these leaders ceased to believe in the “embarrassing” or “weird” aspects of the Gospel – reports of miracles, angels, answered prayers, an empty tomb, and even a personal God. Such supernatural fluff may have masqueraded as truth for unenlightened minds. But there was no longer a place for superstition in a world reshaped by Darwin, Freud, quantum mechanics, the Cold War, and sexual liberation.


It was crucial to reframe “God” as a notion that would be acceptable to secular people.   


The leading figure in that effort was Paul Tillich (1886-1965), widely regarded as the 20th century’s most impactful theologian. 


What does it mean to have faith? Tillich famously wrote: “Faith is a total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite, and ultimate concern. The unconditional concern, which is faith, is the concern about the unconditional. The infinite passion, as faith has been described, is the passion for the infinite. Or, to use our first term, the ultimate concern is concern about what is experienced as ultimate.” 


It’s fair to suggest that the apostle Paul might have responded to such a statement by asking, “Could you run that by me a few more times?”


Suffice it to say that such word salads are incomprehensible to the average person. According to Tillich, God is not a person, but “the Ground of all Being.” Mainline churchgoers found it hard to understand how such a God could help them with an empty bank account, a sick baby, or questions about the meaning of everyday life. 


Therefore they stayed away in droves. 


And many ended up in faith communities that openly presented Jesus as a living Presence and the Bible as living Truth. 


In 1972, Dean M. Kelley published a landmark study called Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. According to his thesis, conservative churches prioritized the spiritual needs of their congregants, while leaders from declining mainline denominations increasingly focused on social and political causes, undergirded by theologies of doubt and denial.    


Mainline church leaders were offended. 


They dismissed the author as uninformed. But Kelley was a Methodist clergyman, not an outsider or rabblerouser. He was accused of using deceptive statistics. Kelley responded that he had merely crunched the numbers publicly available from mainline denominational headquarters. 


Theologians like Martin E. Marty suggested that the decline of traditional Protestant groups was a momentary hiccup arising from the turbulent 1960s. Others asserted that the mainline denominations are morally superior, the only groups wiling to face reality with courage instead of outdated myths. They represent the “faithful remnant” of God’s people, as proven by their ever-shrinking numbers.


But the best explanation for the decline of these historic bodies remains the simplest one:


People are hungry for God, and they will go wherever they can find him. 


The British apologist Justin Brierley makes a startling suggestion at the end of his 2023 book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers Are Considering Christianity Again. Brierley proposes: Keep Christianity Weird. 


In other words, we should refuse to explain away or hide the supernatural (and sometimes genuinely strange) aspects of the biblical narrative.


In that regard, we shouldn’t be put off by the word “weird.” Christians may feel a special fondness for stories about a talking donkey, bread that shows up on the ground every morning for 40 years, and Jesus strolling atop cresting waves. But for those outside the faith, “weird” seems be an entirely accurate description.   


Significantly, that strangeness is seen by some non-Christians as an asset.   


Journalist Ben Sixsmith describes himself as having “an open, curious, unsettled agnosticism.” He recently wrote in The Spectator that churches shouldn’t water things down in order to become more inclusive or relevant. 


“If someone has a faith worth following, I feel that their beliefs should make me feel uncomfortable for not doing so. If they share 90% of my lifestyle and values, then there is nothing especially inspiring about them. Instead of making me want to become more like them, it looks very much as if they want to become more like me.”


Tom Holland, a highly regarded historian who specializes in the influence of Christianity, is not a believer. At least not yet. 


He reminds Christians that their faith was “birthed in the strange claim that the God of the universe had willingly died a slave’s death and been raised to life again.” He urges churches to be bold. “Don’t duck all the stuff about angels. Major on that!”


We may sometimes feel shy concerning the strange, unexpected, and flat-out weird stories we encounter in Scripture.


But God is clearly not embarrassed.


The weird, after all, is what makes his story wonderful.   

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