Monday, May 18, 2015

The Church that Fights the Tide

Christianity is in retreat in America, falling back and away, or so says whatever Pew study that American Jesus people are wringing their hands about lately.

The old liners are continuing to fade, of course.  Declining and talking about decline is just what we do.

But even the Big Box Churches of AmeriChrist, Inc. are waning, despite their evangelical fervor and seeker-hungry marketing savvy.  It's an across the board retrenchment, one that should be troubling for any who think the spread of the Way is a good thing.

But as with every trend, there are outliers, communities that have within themselves alternate dynamics that make them buck against the tide.

For years, I've studied such a community, most recently as part of the research for my last novel

It's a Christian denomination that has grown ferociously over the last two decades, doubling in size.  The trend-lines, for those who study that community, look really really good.

The sect is, of course, the Amish.

They're bucking the trend, radically so.  There were around 100,000 Amish folk in the late 1980s, when I first studied them as part of my undergraduate Religion program at the University of Virginia. As of three years ago, there were 251,000 Amish folk.  They're on track to have nearly half-a-million within the next two decades.  At which point, given trends, they may outnumber the Presbyterians in my old-line denomination.  Perhaps we'll wave to one another as we pass.

Why? Why are they growing, as all around them more conventional Christianity struggles?  There are many reasons, but I'll highlight three:

Reason One:  The Amish Reproduce.
To our traditional alliterative Amish image of beards and barns, bonnets and buggies, we need to add "babies."  The Amish have lots and lots of babies.  Large families remain a positive asset when you're farming the land using traditional methods.  They don't wring their hands about how to pay for college, because the Amish don't go to college.  They don't  worry about how to coordinate all of that anxiety-parenting soccer and karate and test-prep, because they don't do that, either.  

The Amish do not helicopter, or fret about the ROI on their children.  They just have kids--on average, six or seven--who help out around the farm or business.

This is a real part of their growth, one that isn't "replicable," as they say.  I mean, sure, I could propose that to my church, but somehow I think that'd go over so well.   "My plan for growing this church is that you all start having more babies right now!"  There'd be laughter, right up until they knew I was serious, at which point I'd need to hone my skills in retail.

But there is an irony here that does not escape me.  The Christians who buy into the idea that evolution is just the way God works tend not to procreate.  The Amish, who don't?  Their social structure and set of expectations is more robust, from a strictly Darwinian standpoint.  Go figure.

Babies aren't where that ends, though.  Because babies grow up.

Reason Two:  Amish Kids Become Amish Adults.
One of the most striking features of Amish community is just how little attrition occurs as their children grow to adulthood.   Unlike Catholicism, which produces plenty of ex-Catholics, the Amish have an astoundingly high retention rate.  Depending on the study, between 85 and 95% of Amish children choose to be Amish adults.

This is not because the Amish try to be "relevant" and "young" in their worship services.  They couldn't care less about appealing to kids.  Their worships are long and traditional and unrelenting.  They do not hire hippity-happenin' youth pastors.  And yet there the stat is.  They succeed, wildly, at engaging their young people in community in such a way that they choose to remain.

It is also not because their kids are unaware of the outside world.  Rumspringa, the Amish version of confirmation, actively encourages disengaging from the church for a while and experiencing the world.   And yet a significant majority choose to stay.

Why is this?  Because the entire goal of Amish childhood is to become an Amish adult.  In point of fact, that's the totality of how they orient their children's upbringing.  You're preparing your children to be a farmer or craftsman, a mother or a father.  Period.

And sure, we might cluck at that approach, finding it more than a wee bit claustrophobic and slightly oppressive.  How stifling!  How crushing of the human spirit, to not let our kids be anything they want to be!

But as we do so, we have to ask ourselves: does our culture create paths of life-giving meaning and identity for our children?  Does our economy--meaning the way we structure our life together--give them a sense of belonging, of place, of purpose?


More pointedly: does our congregational culture do that?  Really?

And there lies the third strength of Amish identity.

Reason Three:  Clearly Countercultural Economy.
Christians of all flavors like to claim that they stand in tension with the culture.  We leftist oldliners tend to articulate that in terms of our orientation to justice.  The evangelicals assert it as a radical commitment to growth and the spread of the Gospel.  The fundamentalists focus on bible-belief and nation.

But honestly?  The Amish show the lie of our claims.  Can I claim to be countercultural, living in my suburban home, facebooking and tweeting my critiques of culture?  No, I can't.  I depend utterly on culture.  I am embedded in it.

So are you, if you're reading this.

Can the evangelicals who grasp at every cultural trend to further the marketing of their message make that claim?  No.  The medium of consumer culture seeps into their message, and when the medium is itself culturally shaped, it makes spreading a countercultural message difficult.

Can the fundamentalists who fuse their rigid literalism with nationalism, wrapping themselves in both the Bible and the flag?  No.  The blending of Christian faith and the state has always been a betrayal of the message of Jesus, and fundamentalism is just modern-era empiricism applied to the texts of Scripture.

Can the progressive Christian left, which so adopts the language of academic leftism that it can't meaningfully distinguish its own voice from whatever #tropes are #trending on #twitter?  No.  No it can't.

But the Amish?  They are counterculture.  They teach and live nonviolent agrarian counterculture in every aspect of their existence.   Theirs is not a perfect society, and I don't view them through rose-colored utopian glasses.  The Amish are very human, with all of the foibles of humankind.

But the model of life they offer is both faithful and radically distinct.

They do not rely on or mimic the oikonomia of the world.  They have created their own economy, intentionally self-sustaining and separate.  In some ways, it is arguably superior and more robust.

It is not a community that creates anxiety within its members, that sets them against one another.  Their economy is not red in tooth and claw, with a handful of victors and a scrambling mass of losers.   Their economy does not shift wildly on the whims of the powerful.  It does no violence, not just in its pacifism, but in its attitude towards those in times of need.

There is a clear choice, for those who are part of their faith and their community.  You can live like the world--like the English.  Or you can can be the Plain Folk.

And for now, the Plain Folk are trending in ways that the rest of us are not.