Blessed feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington, founder of the Order of the Holy Cross.
There’s been a good discussion going on the past few days over at Fr. Jake’s place. It’s related to – well, I’ll just let you look at it over there. It started with a statement from Bishop Jefferts Schori, and it’s gone on. Thinking Anglicans has also referenced the issue and the discussion here.
The topic moved to the numbers in the Episcopal Church. Discussion included the reasons for recent decline, and the experiences of several readers of healthy, active, and growing Episcopal congregations. It also included how effective we are or aren’t at evangelism, and what acts of evangelism might work for us.
That got me to thinking about my own experience of folks talking about their churches, and how they came to be members. In very few cases was it a matter of the theological tradition of a denomination. As a hospital chaplain, I hear so very often in the American scene that folks don't note the theological differences between denominations. Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist (of whatever variety), United Church of Christ (from the Congregationalist tradition), or Disciples of Christ (from early 19th century efforts at ecumenism - an interesting history indeed!), are all seen as pretty much alike. Folks tell me they joined a particular church because 1) it was convenient to their life and home; 2) they found the preaching moving; and 3) they found the community welcoming (usually, activities for families or children seem to fall under either category 1 or category 3). The theological distinctions above can be significant; but the worship is so similar most people don't care about the theological differences. By the same token, I've heard many Roman Catholics and Lutherans, and some few Orthodox comment on learning that I’m an Episcopal priest, "Well, Episcopal is almost like (Catholic or Lutheran or Orthodox as appropriate)."
Now, they do notice worship styles, and those familiar with sermon-oriented worship don't often settle in churches of table-oriented worship; but they don't base those differences on self-conscious reflection on theology. Those who move from table to word may feel moved by strong preaching that they had not experienced before. Those who move from word to table are often aesthetically moved by the music and poetry of the liturgy. But, again, it’s usually more emotional and less theological.
There are other factors, of course. In our multifaith society, a religiously mixed marriage is probably more common than a marriage between folks from the same faith tradition. Indeed, I often get the feeling we’ve defined more broadly what constitutes a religiously “mixed marriage.” Two generations ago a wedding involving an Episcopalian and a Southern Baptist would have been considered significantly “mixed.” These days, for good or ill, the fact that both were in some sense Christian would be enough. More common, at least in my experience of talking to newly married folks, only one person in the couple is religious, or neither is. Certainly, couples with significantly different religious backgrounds, meet, love, and marry with almost no thought about the differences. These issues continue to rest quiet until there are children. Even then, couples will often put off the concern until some specific age, whether for a rite of passage, or until teen years “to allow the children to decide for themselves.”
Now, this observation is entirely unscientific. At the same time, it comes from a “parish” which is as multifaith as American society. I attend to all hospital patients and all hospital staff as best I can, and so I encounter, I think, as broad a sample of American religious life as one might find anywhere (or, at least in a large city in the Midwest).
While there are many arguments about whether churches are growing or declining in numbers, and why, my own experience is that it isn’t a matter of theology, sound or otherwise. Rather, folks seeking a spiritual home find it where they are welcomed and loved. Much of the time they will think little of the theology, or of differences of theology between churches they see as similar. So, perhaps as we seek to offer folks a church home, perhaps we need to make sure we make it a church home.