Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Enculturation and the Death of the Church

My denomination is dying.  Absent a miracle of Biblical proportions, the Presbyterian Church USA will cease to exist in my lifetime.  It is, quite literally, the poster child for denominational collapse in America.

A recent article from Ryan Burge, a scholar of religion at Eastern Illinois University, took advantage of our very Presbyterian tendency to chronicle everything we do.  There, using our own data, in stark detail from an objective observer, evidence of our near-inevitable demise.  The article sounded an alarm, but it ain't like we haven't been hearing that klaxon for years.  This was not news to any Presbyterian.  We know it's coming.

It's a bit like those home videos of the Japanese tsunami of 2011, the best chronicled disaster of our media era.  As the camcorders rolled in the hands of thousands, you can hear the tsunami warnings beginning well before the wave rolled in.  Many moved to high ground, but not with urgency.  They'd heard these warnings before, and the leisurely pace of their ascent is unsettlingly casual.  Others thought they had more time.  You can see them driving around in their tiny little cars, the chimes and vocal warnings echoing across seaside towns like church bells pealing before a coming storm.  Those warnings continue as the water rises, and continue as first cars and then homes and then whole towns are swept away.  There was no stopping the sea.

We're sloughing off members at a rate that puts that likely failure at some point within the next two decades.  We don't have young folk, and in the absence of that replenishment, we're aging out with the Baby Boom.  The PCUSA will die as the Baby Boom dies.  

We've known this so long that we're bored with it, that it's old news, and we'd rather talk about anything else.  I get that.  But that doesn't make it less true.

There's a peculiarity to our organizational death, one that I find myself mulling over a good deal.  Why have we lost our young?  Why does only a white-haired remnant remain?  I mean, the PCUSA has consistently chosen the more progressive path over the more conservative path, the nominally "young" path over the old.  

We're pro women, and pro choice.  We're consistently interfaith, and respectful of all.  After some argument, and the departure of many who weren't, we're finally cool with Queer folk.  We're into naming our historical complicity in past wrongs.  We're full of care and concern for our dangerously warming planet.  We're explicitly antiracist, and in every way present ourselves as opposed to the things that we believe are turning young people away from Christian faith in America.

And for all of that, we're leading the charge into denominational oblivion.  No manifestation of American Christianity has done a better job of losing its children.

That decline is a confluence of many factors.  I'm not going to touch on them all, but highlight three.  

First, we don't really emphasize evangelism, because it's a feels judgey to a liberal heart.  It doesn't matter, we say, if you share our faith.  You can be whatever you want.  It's OK if you are Jewish, or Muslim, or Bahai.  You can be agnostic, or atheist, or nothing at all.  It's all fine.  God's truth is everywhere, and God loves everyone, no matter who we are.  There is no import to staying or leaving.  We don't push to bring folks in, not in any direct way.  It is, by clear implication, not important whether you are part of us or not.  And so people aren't.  Rocket science that ain't.

Second, biology is a factor.  I know, I know, even using the word "biological" seems politically coded these days, but it remains a reality whether we like it or not.  Like most progressives, the PCUSA doesn't have a whole bunch of babies.  With smaller families, there were fewer children to come up in the faith.  It's why the Amish grow, despite proselytizing even less vigorously than Presbyterians. There's not much we can do about that now that we're mostly postmenopausal, but that was a thing.

Finally, most significantly, we've failed at what I call "enculturation."

The evangelical church is notorious for coopting the presenting forms and surface patterns of culture.  Go to a sprawling evangamegachurch, and the initial contact is carefully staged to be comfortable.  To seem familiar.  To put the new attendee at ease.  The music is poppy and easy to sing.  The facility gives off a big stadium vibe.  There's likely a coffee shop.  It's casual.  That's a trick, the Oldline complains.  A bait and switch, carefully designed to get folks comfortable before all of a sudden it's All Jesus, All The Time. 

Because once you're in, you have a new way of understanding existence, a new set of norms and collective expectations that are radically distinct.

What evangelicals do, and the Presbyterian church no longer does, is create a discrete defining culture.  Evangelical Christian culture has its own language and ethos, which is necessary for the formation of communal identity.   That ethos gives cohesion through shared norms, and serves an integrating function for the individuals within it.  Culture must be learned by new adult members, and becomes a central part of the identity of those who grow up within it.

This makes adding to the group a tricky balancing act.  On the one hand, if your group is too exclusive, and your collective culture cannot be translated for other audiences, you quickly become a closed circle.  You recoil at including those who don't express themselves into the world in exactly the way mandated by your group norms, and the walls go up.  Unless you're pumping out offspring like the Amish, growth is impossible.

On the other, if inclusion is prioritized over enculturation, a group will simply dissolve into the broader culture.  In that collectives are, as Old Uncle Paul put it, organic entities.  Living things grow by taking other things into themselves, while at the same time maintaining the boundaries that define their bodies.  Death comes when that breaks down and reverses.  When an organism dies, the boundaries and processes that define the body fail, and it dissolves into the environment it formerly inhabited.

When the language and expectation of a group is borrowed from elsewhere, that group ceases to exist.

Within the Presbyterian world, we're more and more defined by externalities, so focused on deconstruction and inclusion that it becomes harder to parse the boundaries between ourselves and generic secular progressivism.

Which...given that sustaining a unifying narrative isn't one of the spiritual gifts of progressive kinda sorta part of the problem.