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'The Church Next' examines the latest chapter in religious upheaval

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2010 - American Protestantism is in the ER, says a growing number of church leaders as well as critics. Mainline churches in previously dominant denominations like the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church are about to become flatline churches, quipped Stephen Patterson, the preacher at the worship service that opened the annual spring gathering of alumni and students at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves earlier this week.

Patterson's message is "do not fear." The churches will walk out of the ER, but they won't look the same.

"The Church Next" was the subject of the gathering at Eden. Whether it's called "the emergent church," "generative Christianity," "the rising village" or whatever the organizations will be vastly different from the prevailing understanding of "church" now in North America.

"Our grandchildren will know what to call it," said Phyllis Tickle, the featured speaker Tuesday.

Every 500 Years the Place Goes Crazy

Tickle's most recent book, "The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why," points out that the Christian Church and the society that contains it has undergone cataclysmic change every 500 years.

Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation heralded a turn toward democracy, universal literacy and a reliance on scripture rather than the papacy as the ultimate authority for interpreting the nature of God. It was a part of the Age of Reason that overturned Western understanding of government, economics, science as well as the nature of humanity and God.

Five hundred years before that, the Latin church and the Orthodox church split in what was called the Great Schism. Five hundred years before that, the fall of the Roman Empire plunged Europe into "the Dark Ages"; 500 years before that, Christianity and modern Judaism began rising amid the chaos of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

So 21st-century America is in the midst of yet another change, Tickle and others say.

"It's not a death," Tickle said. "Each time, the faith spread, geographically and demographically." Something new is developing, and it will dominate, as church and culture change together.

Every time this change has occurred, it has been a change in society as well as church, and this time is no different, Tickle said. Every time, society and church wrestle with two questions: "Where is our authority? How shall we live?"

"The rules get lost," Tickle said. "When religion begins to change with everything else, the rules are gone." Other deep questions arise: "What shall I believe?" "Who am I?" or even broader "What does it mean to be human?"

"There's always pain in loss," Tickle said. The angry tenor of American society right now is an expression of that pain. Our understanding of psychology, biology, theology, even the economy, is now guided by "the uncertainty principle." The rules are slipping away.

The emerging philosophy, Tickle said, is that "there is an absolute beyond relativity, a constant unknowable truth. But we will never be able to articulate it. That would be a reduction" into human language, which is not up to the task of describing the unknowable that is God.

The Trend Chart of the 20th Century

The audience for this discussion were alumni -- some who graduated as long as 50 years ago -- and current students of this seminary, which is sponsored by the United Church of Christ.

This audience could probably be characterized as liberal or progressive, following the Calvinist mantra of "reformed and always reforming." As such, they expressed, in their questions and in private and lunchtime discussions, a frustration with the "press" being grabbed by the Christian Right that has turned "Christian" into a negative term for many people -- one denoting homophobia, judgmentalism and hypocrisy.

This audience is familiar with the trend line of declining membership and closing churches. In 2008, 50 percent of Americans identified themselves as Protestants, down from 66 percent 30 to 40 years ago, according to statistics gathered by Diana Butler Bass, who spoke at Eden the day after Tickle.

Bass and Tickle often provide a "tag team" approach on the Church Next. Bass' book on the subject, "Christianity for the Rest of Us," was named by Publisher's Weekly as one of the best books on religion in 2006.

Bass "drew" in the air a familiar trend line, starting in 1900 and rising ever more sharply through the 1950s, tapering off around the 1970s and then descending just as sharply as it rose to about where it started, as the 20th Century ended. Bass listened for the collective sigh.

"I didn't tell you this trend was about your church," Bass said. "This is the trend for phone booths." America had 10,000 pay phones in 1900, rising to about 4 million in the 1970s, and falling to 650,000 in 2010.

"When they see that chart (about phone booths) nobody says, 'no one is communicating anymore.' " Bass said. "So as we talk about congregations, we have to ask, 'are they phone booths or communication?' "

Spiritual but Not Religious

In a now famous poll, Newsweek announced in 2005 that 25 percent of Americans consider themselves "spiritual but not religious," only 8 percent consider themselves "religious but not spiritual," another 12 percent say they are neither and a slim majority -- 55 percent of Americans -- say they are "both spiritual and religious."

The folks like the audience at Eden who represent the once-established church identified with "religion," may take their cues from this large group that is looking for both the structure of "religion" and the connection with God that is represented by "spirituality."

Russell Ewell, a recent Eden graduate who is now an associate pastor of the Village Church of St. Louis in Vinita Park, is familiar with this group seeking both religion and spirituality. The United Methodist Church started the Village as a new church -- and a new kind of church -- 10 years ago.

At its start, the Village Church played down its denominational ties, choosing more contemporary music and even shortening some of the traditional prayers and liturgy.

"Now we're reclaiming some of those traditions," Ewell said. "A huge change is that we have gone back to using the traditional words for communion -- line for line out of the book." A majority of the members of the Village Church had never heard the traditional words. When they did, "they said, 'We never knew what it was all about before.'

"Communion is about community," Ewell said. These members of the Church Next want a focus on relationship -- with each other and with God. But they also "need something to hold onto," Ewell said.

Virginia Gilbert is a retired journalist and volunteer in urban ministry. She is a 2007 graduate of Eden Theological Seminary.