Recently I heard an bishop tell a group of his fellow Episcopalians that only 10 to 15 percent of their denomi-nation’s parishes are in something better than the “maintenance” or “survival” mode. It is desperately important to begin to draw more families with children, he said, and mentioned church programs that had been successful in doing it. What we need, he indicated, was better marketing and a more attractive product. This is where those growing fundamentalist churches have us beat. We need to learn something from them about promoting religion.
This question has been posed before—by some very respectable studies, too—and needs to be held before such bishops, even if they persist in ignoring it: Will they deign to consider the possibility of a connection between the Episcopal Church’s morbidity and its theology? The question also can be asked, of course, of all the liberal mainline Protestant churches, and in many Roman Catholic dioceses.
The churches that are bursting with children and young families these days are for mostly the kind with firmly held and morally challenging beliefs. And they are led by men. Might young families be drawn to churches with male pastors because there is at least an intuition that the Church is something like a family, and a female family head is an indication that something has gone wrong somewhere? Our society is full of mother-headed families, and they don’t look good.
Might young parents be uncomfortable with “open” churches precisely because they understand their lives and the lives of their children need a structure that is not susceptible to radical change? Why bother to go to church when what you find there is a pastor who tells you, in so many words, that we are ever so much wiser than our ancestors, and that the faith is to be understood in the light of what clever modern people think is true? One doesn’t need to get out of bed on Sunday morning and drag the kids to church for that kind of information, unless one likes to hear it to the accompaniment of emasculated hymns. How many will be satisfied with the woman preacher whose very presence as such (even if she is very nice and fairly conservative) tells you she has scant regard for tradition, and so is a symbol of our rootlessness?
Young families who go to church usually need strong reasons to do so. It appears that those reasons have a great deal to do with things that the liberal churches are proud, indeed advertise, that they are not. Families want firm guidance, but far be it from latitudinarian churches to tell anyone what to do or believe, much less what to do or believe on pain of their eternal souls. The religiously earnest want strong reasons to resist the destructive side of their natures, but the liberal churches do not believe in a God who allows pain, either to discipline or to punish. Families want authoritative, effective fathers, but the liberal churches’ ministry favors aggressive women and weak, passive men. Families want truth and substance, for the world they live in is full of lies and false appearances, but the liberal churches do not get dogmatic about religious truth, for this leads to the horror of public unpleasantness. If they seek an extended family, a strongly bound community of faith, what they find instead is a church that not only accepts but also encourages more diversity of belief and practice than such communities can tolerate.
The answer to the problem does not lie in concocting programs and curricula that present Jesus to bored, television besotted children as the Most Inclusive Man Who Ever Lived, or that assure our disoriented young people that you can serve God and have lots of worldly fun at the same time. (They know better.) It does not lie in telling young families, surrounded by raging seas of temptation, that the Church will tolerate, or even bless, the marital and familial “options” offered by a world that wants Christians to join in its error and misery. It does not lie in telling confused moderns that the Church is anxious to help them be more like themselves. It lies in an action the modernist churches show no sign of taking: a return to mere Christianity—dogmatic and unashamedly patriarchal, full of love, authority, and power.
—S. M. Hutchens
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
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