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The Church in the Centrifuge

by Wade Clark Roof

Wade Clark Roof has been named F. F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author, with William McKinney, of American Mainline Religion (1987). This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 8, 1989, pp. 1012-1014. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The mainline churches are facing a new kind of Christ-and-culture problem. Since the accommodating Christ-of-culture formulation no longer serves us very well, we have been forced to rethink a Christian response to an increasingly pluralistic and religiously demonopolized environment. Not just religion but the culture generally is in the grips of change. Francis Fitzgerald describes American society in the late 20th century not as a melting pot but as a "centrifuge." A centrifuge is an apparatus that rotates at high speed and sorts out substances at differing densities. With centrifugal force, centers collapse and elements regroup in a different, more fragmented constellation.

Fitzgerald’s image suggests that talk about a religious mainline is increasingly problematic and that those of us who think of ourselves as mainliners ought to find more realistic images of who we are. Yet adopting narrow, sectarian notions of the church and ourselves would be alien to our theological heritage and our commitment to be a public church. Historically our churches have been "bridging institutions" concerned with bringing all of life into some meaningful whole. For us, speaking about God is quite properly public business.

But in a postestablishment era, we must go about our task differently. Let me venture a few suggestions about how to respond to the centrifuge.

New meaning born out of the post-1960s world present new challenges to the church. For example, the baby-boom generation, raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s, possesses experiences, values and approaches to belief and belonging that are very different from those of older church members. In fact, the demography of oldline Protestantism now creates two distinct populations: an aging constituency and the baby-boomers. While the churches have hardly explored fully what it means to minister to the former, the establishment mentalities found in the churches are certainly alien to the latter.

The baby-boomers are themselves far more diverse than the caricatures of Yuppies (young, urban professionals), Grumpies (grim, ruthless, upwardly mobile professionals) and Dinks (dual-income, no-kids couples) would suggest. Douglas Walrath’s distinction is helpful: The older baby-boomers are "challengers," quick to question why things are or must be as they are, and the younger ones are "calculators," for whom setting priorities is a way of life. The worlds of both groups are far removed from many oldline churches. For one thing, babyboomers see the world more in terms of options and choices, and approach matters of faith in a more pragmatic manner. Belonging to a congregation is itself a choice and not simply a matter of social conformity or family connections.

They dropped out of the churches in record numbers in the ‘60s and ‘70s but perhaps one-third or more—mainly the older baby-boomers—are returning. They are looking for a religious grounding for their children and for answers to their own questions about life and its meaning. Many claim to be "spiritual" even when they are unsure about what it means to be "religious." Great numbers of them are faith explorers who check out the alternatives. Some are prepared to make commitments. There is much church-hopping; denomination is less important than congregation.

It would be a mistake, however, to think these people will just return to church. This generation will pick and choose with great care. The congregations that attract them must provide programs that have integrity and speak to their particular life experiences. Many of the existing age- and gender-based structures in the churches will not meet their needs. Many baby-boomers have been caught up in consumerism and self-congratulatory economics, but are not fully convinced that these hold sufficient meaning for their lives. Some find the highly individualistic, utilitarian culture of modern America unsatisfying, and are looking for a warm, open and accepting environment. There are burned-out evangelicals, disillusioned fundamentalists and alienated ex-Catholics—all looking for greater congregational openness than they have known before. We are a refuge for the religiously abused.

If the church opens up "experiential space" and adjusts to this new generation’s world, it will change significantly in style and program. If it doesn’t, it will face an even more dismal future of membership decline.

A second suggestion has to do with religious language. How people talk about their religious and spiritual lives: is integrally related to the survival of faith itself. We liberals ought to move beyond our embarrassment over Christian talk about religious experiences. Paul Holmer distinguishes between "language about" and "language of " faith, and says we shouldn’t think the prevalence of the former substitutes for the poverty of the latter—especially at a time when many Americans are searching for ways of expressing who they are and what is most important to them.

Part of the problem is that liberals, because they are always looking for ways to recast the faith in new concepts and categories, easily fall prey to the latest jargons of science, philosophy, psychology and sociology. Liberalism has been so busy transforming the Christian tradition, says Joseph C. Hough, Jr., that it has forgotten to transmit it. This is not to disparage the formidable intellectual tasks of modern reformulation, or to minimize its importance for the life of the church, but to suggest that the ways in which we go about this often shortchange everyday languages of faith. We do this at our peril. Inevitably the vitality of the Christian church arises out of grass-roots affirmations of faith and commitment, out of the tales and stories told by those sitting in the pews.

I am persuaded by George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Barbara Brown Zikmund and others that we must discover religious meaning in language and metaphor. Religion is a language: it involves learning how to talk about one’s life, interpreting events and experiences, and drawing upon a legacy of beliefs, symbols and stories that give life meaning and coherence. Individuals can tell deeply personal stories, but there is also a communal story—a narrative shaped by a shared outlook and common interpretation of experience. There is growing recognition today of how language shapes a particular community of faith. "Narrative theology" and ethicists are giving attention to the ways in which tradition informs our understanding of what we believe to be good. Language is at the heart of the theological enterprise, and we should appreciate now what this means for the renewal of spirit and faith.

Just as the biblical narrative carries its own force and cannot be reduced to a single teaching or moral, faith as expressed in story and metaphor is coherent on its own terms. For believers, the biblical and personal narratives fuse, forming a unity which is at once both universal and personal. When this happens, language, even the old dry vocabularies that seem spiritless, can come to life. Dan Wakefield’s recently published spiritual biography Returning is one example. Wakefield tells of his secular adventures: of accomplishment and disappointment, of having explored most of modern America’s seductive alternatives of spirit and flesh and, finally, of rediscovering himself in a worship service in Boston. He just happened to drop in on a congregation one Christmas Eve and, in a liminal moment, "started to see the deeper connections and more expansive framework offered by the sense of our small daily drama in relation to the higher meaning that many people call God."

We liberals must come to terms with the personal religious vocabulary and quit discrediting people’s spiritual quests or somehow looking upon them as less important than social and political matters. The appeal of New Age and human-potential therapies is that they give expression to the personal and mystical and do so—as Catherine Albanese points out—by "reprimitivizing" religion. They bring religion back to the most fundamental of human concerns: health and well-being and being in touch with self and with one’s environment. Some of us find this strange talk, yet it really isn’t all that strange. There was a time when liberal Protestants talked this way. They even talked of personal growth and transformation. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s On Being a Real Person comes to mind. It was not until the 1950s that liberal intellectuals decided that the laity’s preoccupation with personal faith encouraged self-absorption at the expense of theological and social issues. Perhaps it is time for a more balanced perspective.

Second, metaphor and language have something to do with community. It’s hardly news that we in the liberal churches have a belonging problem. Large proportions of our members have only marginal ties to congregations. Martin Marty says we look more like alumni or alumnae associations than faith communities. We treasure our individual freedom and autonomy, but for many of us the end result is "Sheilaism"—the radically individualized type of believer described in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart who professes a faith in God but feels no need for sharing it or for communal involvement. Religious privatism saps the liberal churches of their strength perhaps more than anything else in modern society. What can we do about this? Belonging, or community, isn’t programmed; it doesn’t occur, in any lasting way, by mobilizing around an issue. Instead, it arises out of shared imagery and vocabulary. We have to break out of privatized modes of belief by cultivating imagery for the faith community. Then, and only then, will we solve the belonging problem.

Like most liberals, I respect that which transcends time and place. However, our preoccupation with universals often blinds us to sources of strength found in the particular. Picking up on the centrifuge theme, we have to respect the new densities of the post-1960s. If I read the signs correctly, I think there has been a mood shift. Students are searching religious traditions for basic values and beliefs. There is renewed interest in religious and spiritual figures—men and women whose lives stand out because of their character and commitment—and in moral and ethical issues. The most popular course at Harvard these days is Harvey Cox’s "Jesus and the Moral Life." At the University of California at Santa Barbara a course on "Vietnam and the American Soul" draws hundreds of students. Attention is on the particular—on the way specific religious and moral leaders have dealt with the nitty-gritty of faith and life.

The great world religious figures of this century—Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa—were all deeply rooted in a particular tradition, yet each has a broad appeal. Integrity, passion, conviction, vision—indispensable elements of a religious story—all arise out of a context, yet transcend context. Universality arises out of the particular, not the other way around. Good religion is like good literature in that the particular may bear within it the universal.

We in the liberal churches must rediscover our own particular traditions and celebrate them as authentic expressions of Christian faith. But we must not be so captive to our middle-class values that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps this is what our various constituency theologies are trying to make clear to us. But the point needs to be made in a better way. We need to concern ourselves less with theological in-fighting and liberal versus conservative posturing, and instead hold up particular embodiments of the universal. Emphasizing these common life experiences and epiphanies—what Robert Calhoun once spoke of as "intimations of the presence of God"—can help us locate that which unifies us.

What is finally important in renewing the churches is not the health or even survival of any particular institutional form. The church is not an end in itself; it is an earthen vessel from which sacrifice and service and proclamation must constantly be poured out. That it is taking new shape in our time is not to be feared but celebrated. We must be open to whatever new church emerges and not be overcome with guilt over the Protestant disestablishment of the past quarter-century. Disestablishments are liberating; they open up new challenges and opportunities. We must not fear that the treasure poured out will not be replenished. We must go about being faithful—with eyes open to what is happening around us, and hearts and minds fully engaged in the traditions we have inherited and the demands of the present age. And then we must leave the rest to God.


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