Issues in Renewal Movements
4. Renewal groups within mainline denominations have consistently failed to confront or account for member apathy. This does not mean they are unaware of the phenomenon; but it seems to have no effect on their strategic choices. The issue is this: when a large number of members share renewalists’ views and are in opposition to the views held by institutional leaders and the anti-renewalist contingent, you should be able to get traction. How is it that members fail to make their presence felt? I’m not saying this is the fault of renewalists, but it appears to be something that needs to be examined and addressed.
I know of a few reasons for this. My evidence is anecdotal, but it is widespread enough that I am convinced these are factors.
First, large majorities of members view their church membership as membership in their local congregations. Yes, these often are aware of the denominational name; yes, these often have familial or historic connections of some sort to that name; but ultimately they do not see how the national corporations have anything to do with them. At most, they will have a slight, pep-rally sort of in-group bias when it comes to their denominational affiliation. This in itself is an almost insurmountable obstacle to renewal movements. Why engage in the work of ‘renewal’ when you have no felt need to do so? If the corporation, headquarters, bureaucracy of the denomination has nothing to do with your local church, what does it matter? It is almost to the point that members could hear convincing evidence that ‘at denominational headquarters, they support eating babies’ and remain unmoved. However, if a renewal movement is to succeed that block must be overcome somehow.
Second, many members of the legacy denominations remain unaware of their historic traditions. Time after time the marketing gurus of the progressivist contingent actually identify progressivist core beliefs as integral parts of those traditions. It is counter-factual: in many cases these beliefs are not only not parts of the traditional teachings of the mainline denominations, but they directly contradict those teachings. Unfortunately, few members seem to have the resources to know this. Instead, many find themselves with a vague feeling that ‘something isn’t quite right’ while lacking the tools to accurately confront the problem. In order to correct this situation, it would, in my opinion, behoove renewalists to prioritize teaching ministry. While this is occurring, it appears to be haphazard and extraneous to the strategies of renewal groups. I think this is myopic; teaching is strategy. The two are, from a renewal point of view, inextricably linked. When member know their traditions, when they understand historic Christianity with clarity, then they can examine for themselves the competing claims that are engulfing their denominations. Ultimately renewal cannot be based on persuading via incomplete information or better marketing. That is beneath the dignity of Christianity and of the members of denominations. Instead, those who desire renewal must remember that they have the tradition on their side. The renewalist’s case must be based on full disclosure in the full light of day; that is what the anti-renewalists want to avoid at all costs.
Third, many members do not know or understand the situation at higher levels of the legacy denominations. This is circular because the tendency to ignore national and regional issues is actually fed by ignorance of the full significance of those issues. Many pastors and lay leaders are very slow to talk about problematic issues in their denominations with members of local congregations. These leaders don’t want members to leave; they don’t want to add burdens to them; and they don’t like to display the negativity that the actual situation warrants and even demands. Here again, renewalists need to concentrate on reaching members and providing full disclosure. Some efforts at this have been successful, but not nearly successful enough. One thing I would suggest to those who desire renewal: it would be helpful to prepare materials to assist pastors and lay leaders in actually talking to the members of their congregations about problematic denominational issues. Any materials prepared in this context must be beyond reproach. They must be accurate; they must go out of their way to be fair; but they also must not flinch from full disclosure of polity violations, tolerated non-Christian teachings, official extra-Christian teachings, and harmful denominational actions. Keep in mind that anti-renewalists will label any such materials as false – but if one is careful to be accurate and to do everything in the full light of day, the anti-renewalists line, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” will be far less effective.
Fourth, traditional Christian members of mainline denominations who are aware of national issues are often demoralized by the feeling that there is nothing they can do. In most cases they believe they can either accept the situation or leave. Those who choose acceptance, while still aware of problematic issues, simply don’t think about them whenever they can help it. I am persuaded renewal movements need to spend a lot more time empowering those members. What members who desire renewal in their denominations most need are concrete, productive things to do. Too often renewal groups have functioned kind of like lobbyists: “Send us your money, and we’ll do the fighting for you.” Obviously, I recognize the legitimate need renewalists have for funding; in the legacy denominations the progressivist trajectory usually has the full support and resources of multi-billion dollar corporations. Renewal groups cannot possibly compete with this – and in many cases, the use of money and resources to advance the anti-renewalist agenda has borne considerable fruit. Having said that, renewal groups also need to understand that members can do vastly more than contribute money, that members need to do something, that having productive actions to take would increase commitment, and that enabling members to make their voices heard in their denominations would automatically clear up most of the problems that currently exist.
I do not have the space to enumerate all of the actions ordinary members could be asked and might be willing to take; but in general terms, I’ll offer a few examples. Members can be advocates for traditional Christianity within their communities; members can make others aware of the situations of their denominations on the national level with accurate information. Members can participate in any democratic processes within their polities; members can write letters and express their views. Congregations could be encouraged to send members as observers to national meetings – officials, delegates, commissioners might find it easy to ignore or show contempt for the views and deeply held beliefs of their denomination’s members when acting in isolation; it would be harder for them to do so face to face. The bottom line here is this: renewal groups need to get away from the model of a network of professional and semi-professional renewalists advocating on behalf of members of legacy denominations. This bypasses the ordinary member in exactly the same way that denominational officials bypass the ordinary member. I believe it would be far better (and far more effective) for renewal groups to help those members to act for themselves.
5. There seems to be a widespread failure of those who desire renewal to grasp that institutional struggles are ultimately a very nasty business. This is perhaps the fatal flaw of the renewal movement. The renewal enterprise is one of those things of which people would be well advised to consider the cost beforehand. It is also essential that renewalists go out of their way to make sure that their behaviors and tactics are ethical. It makes no difference how unethical others may be in their actions; and it makes no difference that renewalists will be falsely accused of unethical behavior; the fact is those who desire renewal cannot use most of the tactics regularly employed by their opponents within the mainline denominations. It may seem unfair, but there is a double standard: the person calling for renewal is advocating better behavior and therefore must display it.
There are a variety of ways in which the whole business will be nasty.
First, if one’s goal is polity correction, one must be aware of the fact that this will be personal. Polity correction of necessity involves either pushing for changes in polity – i.e. the ‘legislative’ battles that tend to continually recur – or pushing for observance of polity on the part of officials and employees of the denomination. In either case, the one desiring renewal is opposing people accustomed to wielding power to advance their own theological and political agendas. Those who have wielded power do not willingly give it up; those who have supported particular agendas do not customarily abandon those agendas.
This translates into to things: policy statements must be crafted in such a way as to disallow multiple interpretations, and those employees and officials who fail to comply with legitimate instructions of governing bodies must be removed from office. Traditional and conservative Christians have tended to allow for vague policy statements because this gives their opponents an opportunity to save face and seems gracious. Whatever their motives for this practice, they need to be aware that it also permits ANY policy to be easily circumvented – it is not grace, and it is not wise. Similarly, traditional and conservative Christians have looked the other way pretty much across the board at violations of very specific denominational policies by officials and employees. The failure of those who claim to value the polities of their respective denominations to insist on employee and official compliance with their policies constitutes a systemic denial of justice to their members and to those outside their denomination. There cannot be any correction of polity without the removal of employees and officials who refuse to follow polity. This need not be based on prior bad acts; a zero tolerance policy for employee and official defiance from here on out would work; at any rate, it would still involve the removal from office of some people. Bottom line: ANY attempt at polity correction will be unpleasant.
Second, if one’s goal is advocacy for historic Christian doctrines, one will find disagreement in the legacy denominations inevitable. Disagreement by itself does not pose a problem. Difficulties arise, however because both historic Christianity and progressive religious philosophy are claiming the name Christian and the denominational traditions in which they are operating. Both cannot be right – they are incompatible beliefs. But to dispute the name which they claim for themselves cannot be diplomatically done. Christianity either teaches that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, or it doesn’t; Christianity either teaches that Jesus bodily rose from the dead or it doesn’t; Christianity either teaches that Jesus died on the cross to atone for our sins, or it doesn’t; Christianity either teaches that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man comes to the Father but by Him, or it doesn’t. To claim that Christianity teaches these things IS to claim that those who teach contrary things are not teaching Christianity. To claim Christianity teaches these things is also to claim that contrary belief systems are not Christianity. In ordinary circumstances this is acceptable. Islam does not teach these things; to say that Islam is not Christianity is not controversial. Hinduism does not teach these things; to say Hinduism is not Christianity is not controversial. In the case of both religions, the mass of their adherents do not claim to be Christians.
This is not the case for progressivists; these often claim the right to “name their own religious experience”. That may sound ‘nice’; it may sound suitably ‘post-modern’; but I can think of no possible use for such a practice other than confusion and deception. Such linguistic laxity is not socially encouraged in other circumstances; when people say, “table,” they do not generally mean to indicate train tracks – and no one would take them seriously if they did. Even in terms of self-description, this is not generally done; someone whose height is 5’ does not customarily describe himself as tall. Someone with blond hair does not usually say, “I’m a brunette”. So why should religion be the exception? More specifically, why ought Christianity to be the exception? Yes, I suppose a person can choose to call herself a hand-truck if she wanted, but that wouldn’t make it accurate; and others who went along with it would be patronizing her at best. It is true (and inevitable) that many people’s feelings are genuinely hurt when traditional Christians speak plainly about incompatible beliefs. Yet progressivists are making the identical claim about traditional and conservative Christians – though they couch it in different terms. They may speak in terms of their opponents’ rejection of reason, ignorance, bigotry, intolerance, lack of sophistication, fear, psychological motivation – but ultimately the meaning is the same.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that progressivists do not believe what they say. I admit, I personally have difficulty with this issue. I recognize that when it comes to religious belief people often hold theirs with passion and enthusiasm and feel as if they have been enlightened … that they have figured out the secret to life or something of the kind. It is meaningful to them, and they are often unaware that it represents a stark departure from historic Christianity. In many cases these have Christian backgrounds; often these have been deeply hurt by Christians or struggled with aspects of Christianity. They want to believe they are retaining what is good out of their past, keeping the ‘worthwhile’ parts of Christianity; and they often will suggest that Christianity (the Church) took a wrong turn seventeen or eighteen centuries ago. They tend to be genuinely hurt if a person rejects their dubious evidence for this contention; and they tend to be unwilling to consider that the parts of Christianity they have rejected are necessary to the whole. It goes against the experiences they have found meaningful – yet it cannot be done. It cannot be seriously argued with consistency. It always breaks down. As strongly as I resist the confrontation that such disagreement entails, I know that dishonesty is an unacceptable option. The point remains; regardless of the motives, to make an assertion that contradicts someone’s self-description or teaching will be unpleasant. Yet I am persuaded it must be done. I do not believe conservative and traditional Christians can maintain our own integrity without doing so.
Third, anyone who supports renewal will be vigorously opposed by anti-renewalists employing a wide range of tactics. I say this because I believe a word of caution is warranted. If you are a traditional Christian operating within one of the mainline denominations, the moment you open your mouth and say what you believe – especially where it differs from the progressivist agenda within those denominations, you will be attacked. If you openly criticize the corrupt actions of denominational officials and employees, that attack will be more severe. If you publicly object to the progressivist agenda operating within your denomination, a host of anti-renewalists will come out of the woodwork and you will be blindsided. I used the word ‘attack’ for the most part to indicate verbal abuse; however, clergy will often experience retributive behaviors that damage their careers; some people will have personal property destroyed; some will experience very malicious attempts to actually harm their personal lives; lawsuits against individuals financed by multi-billion corporations are not out of the question.
But here’s what’s most likely to happen. People you believed were your friends will criticize and insult you on a very personal level. Others will prevail upon the friendship and try to manipulate you with guilt. Strangers will say the most scathing things – often in the realm of innuendo and vile suggestion without basis. Others will oppose ever minor statement as if it had anything whatsoever to do with your point; if you permit them to bait you, you will find yourself consumed in a morass of utterly irrelevant trivia. Others will flatter you, pretending to want to hear what you have to say, hoping for you to make a mistake they can then exploit to discredit. People will insult your intelligence. People will accuse you of hatred. People will call you a redneck and wonder if your parents were cousins. People will say you’re a bigot. People will attempt ham-handed, amateurish, and insulting psychoanalyses of you from a distance. People will begin to stalk you – to obsess about you in a way that is frankly disturbing. People will malign you behind your back. You’ll hear about blood curdling things people have said about you – and these will often come from people you have trusted. And God forbid anti-renewalists are aware of any actual errors in fact and judgment you have made.
I am not exaggerating here. Every single thing I have mentioned has actually happened to me, to people I know personally, or is a matter of public record. In my case this was not unexpected; I was aware that what I was saying and doing was controversial. (The truth be told, I actually expected worse.) In my case I must also point out that I have made many friends and had many very gracious interactions with people from a wide variety of perspectives. I also am aware that people who hold certain other beliefs sometimes get similar reactions. My point here is not to claim anything unique but to alert those in the mainline denominations who honestly desire the renewal of those denominations that they will face consequences for any statement or action they might undertake. Renewalists who chose to act (and renewal groups) must be aware that what I have described (in rather stark terms) is a tactic only. It has but one point: to distract, to frustrate, to weaken, to divide – to divert from any serious consideration of renewal. The goal is to encourage despair and to convince those who desire renewal that they are alone and powerless. Renewal groups and those individuals who have experienced this type of treatment would be well advised to develop support structures to help and encourage individuals who often find themselves rather isolated in an uphill (and by human calculations, pretty hopeless) battle.
I have tipped my hat to this reality because it appears that most renewal groups do not seem to grasp the full gravity of the basic nastiness and unpleasantness of the task of renewal. These groups often function as self-selected populations that are somewhat shielded from the consequences faced by others who share their goals. Additionally, there is a temptation – because of the elements of renewal that will be of necessity unpleasant – for renewalists to engage in unacceptable tactics of their own. To do so is morally unjustifiable, can hardly be construed as Christian, and would therefore be ultimately self-defeating. What good would polity correction be if one has simply created a climate in which conservative and traditional Christians can do unacceptable things? How can one possibly advocate for the Gospel if one’s lifestyle displays an underlying meanness. On the other hand, there is an equal temptation to avoid those unpleasant things which are necessary – on the misguided grounds that ‘everything unpleasant and divisive is bad’. Usually the one who endorses this error will attempt some focus on mission – and avoiding the disputes that divide us. However, unless our Gospel is the same, our mission cannot be the same. The whole concept of connectionalism (often claimed by various legacy denominations) depends on people behaving in an ethical manner and on people sharing the similar beliefs and priorities. Otherwise it must fail.
6. There is a failure among ‘conservatives’ to understand that progressivists need conservatives to accomplish their agenda. The true “progressive” contingent in the mainline denominations is rather small. These have a philosophical goal of transforming Christianity and the church – i.e. making progress along a pre-determined trajectory. This ambitious goal cannot be accomplished solely by occupying leadership and bureaucratic positions within the legacy denominations. It is no secret that the many of the official pronouncements of those denominations do not accurately reflect the views and beliefs of their members. That is not to say that the members of these denominations are all conservative and traditional Christians; for the most part, they are kind of “in betweens”. That may not be philosophically or theologically tenable, but it is the practical reality.
Progressivists cannot transform Christianity – it simply ceases to be Christianity when it departs form its central teachings. However, they can transform the churches, and they can transform the public’s perception of “Christianity”. In order to do this the progressivist religious philosophy cannot be confined to academia and the headquarters of various denominations and interchurch organizations. It has to bring the masses along. Personally, I regard this as a contemptuous and elitist philosophy, but that is pretty much beside the point.
In order to bring the membership of these denominations along with them on their predetermined trajectory, progressivists must use the principle of “friendly compromise”; and this cannot be accomplished without the presence of conservatives. It is the conservatives who lend the false appearance of contiguity with the denominations’ traditions. There is a tendency in human nature for people to seek the middle. Whether you style this ‘the golden mean’, moderation, communal discernment, herd instinct, or safety in numbers, it is a driving force. People do not like to be that far from what they perceive as the norm. A progressivist can make the most outlandish and absurd claim; conservatives will then stand up to oppose it. The herd instinct kicks in and people start looking for the compromise position between the absurd claim and traditional Christianity. This is a slow process, but a consensus is usually eventually reached. Once consensus is reached, anyone who retains the outmoded, more conservative, traditionally Christian belief is sidelined, demonized, and ultimately purged from the population. At this point, the former consensus IS the conservative position; and the whole membership of the organization has moved along the progressivist trajectory. The consensus, having become the conservative position, is suddenly more closely aligned with the tradition.
The progressivist will continue with the original (or modified to fit the popular language) absurd contention. Conservatives will rally around the consensus; and the middle – the golden mean – will be farther along the progressivist trajectory. A new consensus must be reached to heal the divisions in the fellowship; once the new consensus has coalesced, those who adhere to the prior consensus will be isolated, demonized, and ultimately purged. This process repeats itself over and over again; and if one is thinking in terms of a long term transformative trajectory, a steady march can be seen to be occurring.
What renewalists fail to realize is this: if they are simply arguing for the prior consensus they are playing a role in this theater to help sway the beliefs of majorities of members. They are not accomplishing anything except continuing the march along the progressivist trajectory – away from historic Christianity and toward a ‘brave new religion’ that insists on calling itself “Christianity”. They are helping their supposed theological opponents; they are doing their part to make error more credible to those who seek ‘friendly compromise’.
As I see it, renewalists only have two ways to avoid this pitfall. First, they could leave in mass. I mean, radically enough that the whole ‘conservative’ contingent of the denomination walked out at once. Were this to happen, the consensus process would be shown to be a manipulative lie. The middle who desire moderation would no longer be completely comfortable; the legacy denominations would loose whatever credibility they had from their traditions. (Traditional Christians, by their presence, lend a link between denominational organizations and the traditions from which they spring.)
The second option renewalists have – and the only other option remotely possible – is to reject the prior consensus. The prior consensus was a compromise between biblical Christianity and the progressivist trajectory. The consensus before that was a compromise between biblical Christianity and the progressivist trajectory. As long as renewalists continue to fight for the status quo ante they will only be helping to shift majorities of members in mainline denominations farther away from biblical Christianity. I fully understand that renewalists who fall for this are not, themselves advocating for farther movement, but they are failing to account for a fact of human nature – seeking to moderate between positions, people will move along a pre-planned course.
Instead of contending for the status quo ante, renewalists ought to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints; instead of holding up prior syntheses, renewalists would be well advised to take the difficult road of going back to Scripture. Otherwise, we’re looking toward a fictional point in our denominations’ pasts as if things were faithful then. Yes, they were more faithful formerly than currently; but every era has had its own problems. Renewalists in Protestant denominations ought to take a page from the Reformation play book – sola scriptura. Our goals have been far too modest to possibly succeed: we have earnestly desired some ‘less humiliating compromise’ than what is currently on offer. The fact is, Christianity is NOT OURS TO COMPROMISE.
[In this and my prior post, I have highlighted six specific issues that I see affecting the renewal enterprise. There are others I could mention. For example, there is a lack of critical scrutiny sometimes applied to funding. In some cases this funding has come from political conservatives with their own agendas; in other cases this has been given by theological progressivists – as surprising as that may seem. Also, I could mention that there is a faulty model of leadership that seems to operate in many renewal groups. The bottom line is that I believe all who desire renewal need to take a serious look at the situation as it is. In my next post, I would like to touch on the question of what to do now.]