From Guilt to Affirmation in the Mainline Churches

by Norman D. Pott

Mr. Pott is pastor of Davis Community Church, a United Presbyterian congregation in Davis, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 24, 1979, p.73. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Denominations have applied their energies to saving themselves through new structures, new curricula, new evangelism materials, new approaches to the role of the pastor and the people. But whatever benefits may have accrued, these efforts have apparently had little impact on the membership and dollar trends, which seem to have a life of their own. The church does much better when it functions as its founder envisioned — as salt or leaven — rather than when it attempts to be the whole loaf.

The decline of members and dollars among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics since the mid-’60s is nowhere more graphically portrayed than at church convocations and national assemblies. Witness the graphs with their plummeting lines, the anguished presentation of statistics by the denominational hierarchy, and the curious blend of pessimism and hope communicated through such newly coined phrases as a “decrease of the decrease” to describe a “bottoming out” of the downward curves. All the while considerable guilt is being generated. The implication is that the causes of the malaise are internal; they are to be found in the structure of the church, the curriculum, the strategy for evangelism, the quality of pastoral leadership, or the general level of Christian commitment. The credibility of this diagnosis is evidenced by the intense, almost pathological navel-gazing posture the churches have assumed for the past two decades, and by their endless internal reforms: denominations have applied their energies to saving themselves through new structures, new curricula, new evangelism materials, new approaches to the role of the pastor and the people. But whatever benefits may have accrued, these efforts have apparently had little impact on the membership and dollar trends, which seem to have a life of their own.

An Astounding Boom Period

What is too often missing is the ability to see the recent church-member and dollar depression from the perspective of broader developments in the society at large and from a longer view of the life of the church in this country. I suspect that a future observer, looking back from some distance on the church in 20th century America, will not be half so impressed by the decline of the ‘60s and ‘70s as by the astounding boom period of the late ‘40s and the ‘50s. Edwin Scott Gaustad in his Historical Atlas of Religion in America (Harper & Row, 1962) takes us back to that time, citing a March 1957 Bureau of the Census survey in which persons 14 years of age and older were questioned about their religious preference.

The result gave some indication of the numerical strength of various religious bodies, but the amazing statistic from a long-term point of view is that an astounding 96 per cent of the respondents expressed a religious preference of some kind! To be sure, “religious preference’ is not the same as church membership or attendance, but it does depict a reality that is connected to church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette’s finding that in 1961 the proportion of church members to the general population in the U.S. was the highest ever in the nation’s history (Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, Vol. V [Harper & Row, 1962]). The overall proportion has not changed appreciably since then, though there has been a steady decline in mainline Protestant bodies and in the Roman Catholic Church. In terms of history and statistics, it would be much more accurate to describe this decline as a return to a more normal level of response following the unique and unprecedented heights of the churches’ bull market after World War II. And to understand this return, one would have to discover the factors contributing to the boom period -- factors no longer a part of the scene today.

The ‘American Way’

Two components of the postwar boom in the churches are unmistakable. The first is the inclusion of church affiliation in what we refer to as “the American way of life,” Franklin D. Roosevelt, the primary spokesman for the American cause in World War II, articulated the four freedoms for which Americans were fighting; one of these was freedom of religion.

All war is ambiguous, but there has been no other war in our history in which we were so convinced of our own righteousness and the evil of the enemies as we were in World War II. The country has never felt itself validated as fully as it was through that military victory and has never been more tempted by events to identify the cause of God with the world role of the United States of America. Victory ensured a preservation of our way of life with its four freedoms, and peace brought an uninhibited participation in this American way. Church membership became for a time what it has never been before or since -- an extension of citizenship. In a country where the separation of church and state is constitutionally guaranteed, the two were psychologically united. The church became for countless people a divine sanction of the American way.

A second prominent ingredient in the post -- World War II church boom was a quality of escapism and nostalgia. Several sociologists -- notably Gibson Winter in The Suburban Captivity of the Churches -- observed the connection, particularly in the mainline Protestant churches, between the creation of the suburbs and the institutional expansion of the church. It was in the suburbs that the new church buildings mushroomed. The churches became a significant part of the opportunity the suburb offered its residents to retain a bit of American rural life in an essentially urban environment. The suburb gave at least the appearance and perhaps the experience of retreat, quiet, rest and stability, so that family life could be enjoyed and traditions preserved. The church not only willingly bought into the setting, but then shaped its ministry so as to be able to provide the very benefits that people sought. If the suburb was the reverse side of the American family’s plunge into the rush, complexity and work of urban life, it was there that people were met and received by the Christian church.

Violating the Unwritten Contract

As one who was a pastor during the ‘60s and early 70s I find it relatively easy to identify the issues faced by the church in those years which generated the most controversy and which from an institutional standpoint resulted in the greatest losses. And it is not hard to trace their direct connection to the two factors above which had contributed so dramatically to the church’s boom period.

One issue was the church’s visible participation in the dominant political issues of the day notably the struggle for civil rights for minorities and the protests against the Vietnam war. Obviously there were countless levels of involvement, ranging from congregations that ignored, suppressed or resisted such issues to a few local churches that took direct action through deliberate corporate strategies. It could be argued that only a small minority of church members and congregations were participants in these issues. However, in this minority were leaders of protest movements as well as prominent national leaders of denominations, and right beside them were agents of national media. No one of the 96 per cent of all Americans expressing a religious preference in 1957 could miss the connection that Martin Luther King drew between the God of the Judeo-Christian story and the liberation of black people in our own society. No Presbyterian could bypass the arrest of then Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake for demonstrating against a segregated amusement park in Maryland, and no Presbyterian would be unaware of the $10,000 which the United Presbyterian Church later contributed to the legal defense of Angela Davis.

Whatever the individual’s own point of view and whatever the degree of involvement evident in a particular congregation, the church member belonged to a movement that was related, if not directly connected, to a Martin Luther King, a Eugene Carson Blake and, however remotely, an Angela Davis. The church which he or she joined to receive sanction for a way of life, to be assured that all was well with the country and that God’s blessing continued with us -- this same church was now confronting the country with its national fears and distortions and acting out not God’s favor but God’s judgment. One of the basic tenets of the unwritten contract between countless individuals and the church was thus violated by the church itself.

A second volatile issue of that period was raised by the changes occurring in worship. The most dramatic change was the Catholic transition from Latin to English, but there was a sense in which almost every denomination’s “Latin” was being translated into “English,” at the point of music, liturgy, symbol, color and style. These changes signaled not so much a rejection of tradition as an attempt to renew the tradition by placing it in the contemporary language of the world. People reacted simply because the symbols were changing, and there is no kind of change more difficult to bear. But the reaction was intensified as another basic presupposition of membership was contradicted: the experience of church, rather than providing a way out of this world, was increasingly being set in the context and language of a very disturbing and complex “now.” The new liturgy was encouraging people to come to terms with their world in the strength of the gospel. However legitimate from the standpoint of the gospel itself, such a movement was a denial of the church’s location in suburban retreat, at cross-purposes with the national definition of Sunday, and a repudiation of the member’s participation on the basis of the church’s ability to provide yet another route out of the world. Pulling crabgrass in the backyard, weekending at a cabin in the mountains, watching televised NFL football games -- these offered themselves as activities more harmonious with the established rhythm of life than attending church.

Thus those who had ridden the ‘50s treadmill into the church had the rug pulled out from under them in the ‘60s by the church itself. The crowd departed, a few of the leave-takers making a noisy exit, but most just slipping away, to be recognized in later years only as names on the long list which the discouraged governing board removed from the membership roll.

Yielding to Temptations

The point, of course, is that the church should not be discouraged. Historically the church has never been able to accommodate itself to a mass movement without surrendering much of its identity, and our history since World War II has given us yet another example. Surely the church is overextended in providing sanction for any nationally based life style, and betrays its own world-affirming faith by submitting to a movement of retreat and escape. The church does much better when it functions as its founder envisioned -- as salt or leaven -- rather than when it attempts to be the whole loaf. So set in the context of the church’s postwar boom, during which many people became members for the wrong reasons, our present decline is actually a growth, our slackening of institutional strength a recovery of identity, and our loss of members a renewal of integrity. Away with guilt and remorse!

For many the temptation now is, instead of serving faithfully and patiently out of this new strength, to submit to a panic strategy for recovering the lost institutional power. Were it not for the gospel’s continually checking the church’s gross inclinations, such a strategy would not be hard to devise. Given a blank check to build the church institutionally, one could still reap an impressive dividend by sustaining the forces and themes that were the attraction of the ‘50s -- that is, by offering a blend of the gospel, the American way, and nostalgic escape to an earlier era. Some other sure-fire ingredients of contemporary institutional success continue to make their appeal.

There is, for instance, the theory that one should treat church members as consumers, just as they are treated throughout the rest of the society. The ministry would then be confined to a professional elite, clearly identified and permanently detached, of those who see themselves as dispensers of the church’s goods to the members. The gospel, however, summons the whole church to ministry, both within and beyond the congregation.

Closely related is the temptation to package the gospel as an available component for individual personal growth. If the church’s ministry could become one building block in each person’s quest for fulfillment, it would find itself with a very salable item in a popular contemporary market. But the gospel calls us to a responsible and sustained participation in a community of persons and declares that we will come to ourselves only as we are willing to give ourselves away -- a course of action that has never sold well.

To have people involved in the institution at all, some response must be solicited, but the temptation is to suggest that it be sought only at carefully specified points. For instance, the response should be directed toward the support of the institution itself -- giving money, ushering, church administration, the kinds of roles that provide the advantage of available handles and the measurable satisfaction in being able to make some obvious contribution. Any ministry out in the society should preserve the distinction we have come to know between social service, which is okay, and social action, which creates controversy and disaffection. Those denominations that have been institutionally burned lately are now in the mood to guard that distinction with diligent caution. But the gospel addresses the total person and calls for an application to the whole life of the world.

A final temptation -- now that we have learned that the medium is the message -- is to make our appeal slick, glamorous and attractively packaged. This approach has application to all the communication that occurs in the church but particularly to its public displays: music, preaching, the performance of the liturgy. To keep the people in the posture of spectators while at the same time affording them the vicarious experience of participation via professionals enables the church to reap the benefit of one of the most powerful dynamics of our time. The gospel, however, describes the Christian community as a gathering of persons, each one of whom is particularly gifted by the grace of God, and it defines the church as the place where these individual gifts are to be discovered and expressed. This understanding militates against an attitude of professionalism and commits the church to an ongoing volunteerism and a permanent amateur standing -- hardly the ingredients for a slick operation.

Resisting the Gospel’s Hard Demands

While guarding against a rush to judgment, we can easily think of ministries that are pushing all or many of the current success buttons: they are carried out by a professional elite; they utilize the best marketing and media techniques; they dispense a personal fulfillment strategy to essentially anonymous folk who are regarded as consumers and called to respond in carefully prescribed ways which do not implicate them or their leadership in the more complex and controversial human issues. At the same time, the mainline churches, with some forgivable nostalgia for the crowds and dollars of the ‘50s, struggle with a much smaller community, encouraging persons to express their gifts in responsible ministries within and beyond the walls and to pursue the application of the Good News to every area of life -- most of all the places of conflict and pain. The “unpopularity” of this approach can be demoralizing, but such a ministry must be encouraged and sustained by a long view of its essential truth, derived not from the current standards of success but from a stubborn faithfulness to the gospel itself.

Let’s not be too smug, however. It may well be that for all of their culturally based success ingredients, some of the “popular” ministries are still much less embarrassed and much more effective in facilitating the reality and experience of God’s grace than the mainline churches are. The call to develop a responsible Christian life style within the community may be resisted because of the hard demands of the gospel. It may also be resisted because at the heart of the church there is not much gospel exposed, so that it all comes out as just another prescribed and peripheral way of life without any energy or motivation from the center.

Bruce Reed of the Grubb Institute of London has given a provocative picture of the essential ministry of the church from the vantage point of the behavioral sciences (The Task of the Church and the Role of Its Members [Alban Institute, 1975]). He sees contemporary persons involved in what he describes as a process of oscillation: at those times when people have their bearings, there is a sense of wholeness, power and integration that encourages creativity and expression; at times of anxiety or weakness in the face of difficulties, there is a need to reach beyond the resources available in oneself to regain a sense of well-being and to “get it together.” The first experience is characterized by what Reed calls intradependence, a self-sufficiency, and the second by extradependence, or seeking support beyond oneself. He speaks of religion “as the social institution which provides a setting in ritual for the process of oscillation in a society.”

Reed has described quite accurately a familiar back-and-forth of life and demonstrated the pertinence of the church community to our human experience. A much less sophisticated description of the church’s task in this light is to say that we are together to enable people to be born again, and again, and again. Without this center there will not be much life in the rest of the church, however much integrity we ascribe to ourselves against the servants of success.

A Community That Lives Sacramentally

The heartening reality is that the typical mainline church, by maximizing its advantages, can provide an environment that encourages this kind of continuing renewal. If Jesus Christ is the model of God’s being in the world, if the word does indeed become flesh, then God addresses us in person, as “you”; God comes to us through human beings, and God has touched the whole of human experience.

The response, then, is a community that lives sacramentally, and that is precisely what the contemporary church is capable of being. We must not be offended by the personal “you” that God speaks, or embarrassed to reply directly. We must wrestle with God in person and as persons together. We must enlarge the sacrament so that it embraces the world, so that our symbols, celebrations and proclamations affirm God’s presence throughout. We must enhance the qualities of community that contribute to growth, specifically the sense of history, of being connected to others. What the church really offers is the experience of being in it together.

This kind of community-building is an arduous and consuming activity often frustrated by its opposition to so much in the current mainstream. It is certainly not a strategy for success but only an effort toward faithfulness,