To his credit, he doesn't offer an answer. He basically focuses on what he sees as the imminent demise of the Episcopal Church in America, and concludes that its leaders should take a breather from their frenetic pace of change and ponder what they really want to alter, and what they want to retain without compromise. As Rob Bell might put it, they need to decide what kind of there they want to have there. Failing this, Douthat says, the institution "will change, and change, and die."
I found Douthat's column, and the varied perspectives that followed it, interesting and inspiring. I will go into the details below and will end up with the new question that it led me to -- one that might actually be helpful: Is the decline of the church a "wicked problem?" (I will go on to explain what a wicked problem is, but at the outset stress that I'm using 'wicked' in a special sense -- not in the sense of cruel, morally wrong, evil, etc.)
The op-ed piece says the Episcopal Church is dying out, despite (because of?) its moving to a big-tent, liberal region on the spiritual landscape over the past decades, in part dating to:
... 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.Douthat says Episcopalian bean-counters for the past decade find liberalization has not attracted "a younger, more open-minded demographic", and overall attendance has been in "something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase."
Douthat tosses out token gripes with other churches: The most successful, in terms of numbers of congregants, "have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message." He says any mainline Protestant denomination -- "Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance." Within the Catholic Church he observes that progressive orders have failed to attract new adherents.
The column ends by wishing "that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence." Douthat wonders what I wonder -- What does the contemporary liberal church offer that "you can't already get from a purely secular liberalism"? In the comments that follow, people mention things the progressive church does offer beyond secular liberalism. Elizabeth Fuller (of Bishop Gene Robinson's diocese in New Hampshire) writes,
"Where else in this culture do you find institutions made up of neighbors, of people of different social classes and educational backgrounds, even different political stripes, who join together to ask difficult questions, to think about values, to study the wisdom of the past in order to inform the future? Where else can you go to listen (for free!) to the beautiful sacred music, composed over centuries, that is otherwise primarily heard in concert halls to which admission costs have been steadily rising? Where else can you to take comfort in knowing you are not alone in your struggles -- that Job and others like him have agonized over the unfairness in the world and been frustrated by our lack of answers? I could go on and on, but there simply isn't space."
Others note additional reasons people don't embrace the church, including the guess,
" that progressive religion is dying in America because, for right or wrong, a very powerful, vocal conservative movement has succeeded in equating institutionalized religion with conservative values in the popular mind, and now children, who have tended to be more socially progressive than their parents for several generations now, find no reason to care about the church at all."As I was thinking about the column's question, these responses, and my encounters with both successful and declining churches, it suddenly clicked: What we have here is a "wicked problem." These, unlike "tame problems," are incomprenensibly complex; they have multiple stake-holders, often with vastly different interests, values, motivations, and perspectives. They entail interrelated issues and an incomplete (or in this case perhaps unknowable) list of requirements and driving forces. Solving one bit of a wicked problem may cause unanticipated new problems -- or help reveal directions toward the larger solution. Wicked problems are unique, so past experience is of limited value in their solution. And it is only in the solution that you come to understand what the actual problem was.
As the church slides into decline, I think it needs to steal every tip, every scrap of knowledge that it can from the secular world, including ideas for tackling wicked problems.
It was at the keynote address of a recent meeting of the Association of British Science Writers that I first heard of wicked problems. The speaker, Jay Rosen (a professor of journalism at Columbia University) said that one thing that might help describing wicked problems is having lots of different people tackling different parts from many different angles, around the world, and collecting and sharing experience and data from diverse quarters. A software engineer may get a key ingredient for the solution from a motivational psychologist who may learn from an economist. A group communications expert may have a key tool for incorporating input from essential, but largely unheard voices at the grassroots level, which might turn the problem upside down for the authorities who've been wrestling unsuccessfully with it for decades...
Rosen also suggests iterative problem-solving, like that used to tackle huge software projects:
"... listen to the clients and quickly prototype something that solves one little problem. Then show it to the client, knowing that it will probably reveal further aspects of the “big” problem .... Then you do that again. And gradually you get there ... Jumping back and forth from a global understanding that is constantly in revision to local solutions that are constantly being tested...."From Rosen's thinking about wicked problems -- and if you buy my hypothesis that the decline of the church is a wicked problem, you'd have to conclude that Douthat's suggestion -- leaving the fate of the church up to the ponderings of its leaders -- probably isn't going to work. Wicked problems start "from the limits of professional expertise." Leaders and organizations may be stuck in a rut, lacking the creativity and broad, diverse perspectives needed for the "unmanageable complexity" of wicked problems.
He certainly wasn't talking about the church, but I heard religious undertones as Rosen approached the end of his talk. Writing about wicked problems, he said "preaches humility to the authorized knowers. It mocks the one best answer and single issue people. It seeks to deliver us from denial."
Could the vast distributed network of individuals, believers and doubters, in and out of the church; congregations, benefices, church leaders, religious columnists..... somehow share their knowledge and piece together solutions that might someday define the wicked problem I think we have here? Could someone just magically compile the vast years of vigorous (and diverse) jostling on the discussion boards of the "Ship of Fools" and suddenly see IT?
Post update, September 2013: I found this article by Christian Piatt. It's not a bad starting place for the scary process of rebooting church. Piatt identifies "Five Things That Are Holding Christianity Back":
Church buildings ("have become an albatross rather than an asset")
Denominations ("...if you ask those outside of the Christian faith, these divisions not only seem irrelevant; they are part of the reason they have little or no interest in being a part of the Christian faith .... that is so desperately fractured and fragmented that few of our denominations are really sustainable anymore")
Worship ("in holding tighter to our traditional notions of worship, rather than to the value of community, however and wherever it is expressed, we end up worshipping our own worship services more than we worship God.")
Church Boards ("...as is the case in most systems involving power, it is in the nature of church boards to stay more or less the same, rather than adapt to more accurately reflect the congregation, or even the community beyond the walls.")
Fear ("Too often, our actions in church are governed principally by a response to what we fear might happen, rather than faithfully discerning what God is calling us to do. We assume that the only way to tell if we’re being faithful is if the church buildings are full and the budgets are met. But this mandate is nowhere to be found in the Bible. . .
"...there are an increasing number of people ...who feel some connection to God, but who don’t see the value of using church to explore that connection. This is not necessarily an indictment of us as individuals, but rather a wake-up call to help us recognize what’s really important. As Jesus demonstrated, the relationships matter so much more than our religion, and Jesus’ call is to go out among the people, not wait until they come to us.
"Sure, it’s scary, because it’s vulnerable and a little bit risky. But Jesus never promised us a risk-free faith. Rather, he offered us a life filled with meaning, provided we would embrace the perfect love he offered that promised to cast out such fear.")
By coincidence, the very same day I read the Piatt article, I also saw this video news clip on something called "Sunday Massive" -- a non-religious celebration (including music, poetry and thought) held in a disused church in Hove, England. The point was described by participants as being for "community" and "fun" for people uncomfortable with "the religious aspect" of church. Is this what rebooted Christian faith looks like? Just doing what He said rather than making a religion about it -- doing what Jesus did rather than wrapping it up in traditional worship and preaching about one particular take on it?