Transforming a Lukewarm Church

by Edward Farley

When this article was written, Edward Farley was Buffington Professor of Theology Emeritus at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His most recent books are Deep Symbols and Divine Empathy.

This article appeared in the Christian Century magazine August 27 – September 3, 1997, pp. 754 – 757. Copyright by The Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


What intrigues the author is that certain specific oldline congregations do manifest vitality and show the marks of transformation. Perhaps that is where the leaders of the oldline denominations should begin in their search for a strategy of change.

Since the mid-1960s, the mainline Protestant denominations have declined in membership, numbers of churches and church attendance. Statistical decline, cultural marginalization and religious displacement from the center is the recent story of the mainline churches. Conservative Protestant movements now occupy the religious center and constitute a good portion of the mainline denominations.

These rapid social shifts have evoked denominational self-examination and an at tending literature of historical and sociological inquiry. The books are familiar: The Gathering Storm in the Churches (Jeffrey Hadden), Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Dean Kelley), Where Have All the People Gone? (Carl Dudley); so too are the names of many other scholars who study the matter: Berger, Marty, Rieff, Hogue, Roof, Bellah and McKinney. Familiar also are a pair of widespread responses to the mainline's statistical decline: an increasing adaptation to conservative agendas and a growing enthusiasm for what some call the church growth movement. Conservative adaptation shows up in the studied silence (one writer called it trivialization) maintained on controversial issues, and in the pervasive rhetoric of retrieval -- the old ways, doctrines or distinctive denominational traditions. Church growth strategies would reverse the decline by new techniques of membership attraction and retention.

John B. Cobb Jr., one of this country's best-known Protestant theologians, offers a diagnosis and recommenced treatment for the mainline's plight. The five lectures collected here are not so much social science analyses as a mix of intuitive social discernment, historical tracking and theological thinking. That we have this analysis from Cobb should not surprise us. Stressing both global and local crises of social suffering, Cobb's recent writings have brought theological thinking into a variety of fresh engagements: with the sciences, other religious faiths, economics, theological education, and congregations. Furthermore, Cobb has prefigured the present book by two earlier works that urge lay Christians to take up theological thinking in a serious way: Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993)' and Lay Theology (1994). Three major themes interact in Reclaiming the Church: the loss of vitality (what he calls "lukewarmness") in the mainline churches, an inquiry into what brought about this condition, and a proposal about what a new vitality (Cobb's term is "transformation") would look like and what would bring it about.

To locate Cobb's book among the responses to the statistical decline of the Protestant mainline (despite the book's subtitle, Cobb himself prefers the term oldline) is somewhat misleading. Cobb's primary categories of analysis are not statistical or quantitative but theological. Lukewarmness and transformation are both theological notions; accordingly, his criteria for vitality are not statistical but theological and ethical. Conceivably, therefore, a denomination or religious movement can be vital in the statistical sense of new churches built and congregations expanded, yet still be lukewarm in Cobb's sense. That Cobb's analysis allows for such a possibility distinguishes it from the perspectives of the church growth movement.

What idea of ecclesial vitality does Cobb have in mind when he charges the mainline churches with lukewarmness? Cobb is clearly raising the issue of what used to be called piety, a spiritual quality of life in the church. To further delimit this spiritual quality Cobb introduces a Whiteheadian concept -- intensity. Lukewarmness means a low intensity of shared feeling. Low intensity is both a low degree of passionate interest -- the kind that generates real disagreement and dispute -- and a low valuation of faith and church on the full spectrum of held values. For Cobb, then, the idea of ecclesial vitality indicates intense passion or interest and also the retention of faith's centrality -- Seek first the kingdom of God."

But how do we know when faith is central and passion intense? Cobb provides us with some exemplary signs of vitality. First, a vital church is one that is culturally engaged. It may or may not be "established" at the center of society. It maybe sociologically marginal. Yet, if it is vital, it will be engaged with society's problems, crises, trends and sufferings. These problems include the wrongs done to various groups -- wrongs done to women, ethnic groups, regional peoples, and races. Since complicity in these harmful acts is part of the church's history, present-day repentance and redress of these wrongs is a sign of vitality.

Second, a vital church will respond to how the larger society challenges (criticizes, attempts to discredit) the convictions and beliefs of the world of faith. For Cobb the old- line churches displayed vitality when they seriously struggled with the evolution of species and historical ways of studying the Bible.

Third, theological thinking itself is a sign of vitality. A vital religious community will be ever at the task of resolving confusions and ambiguities about its own mission, which means especially how it conceives God and salvation.

According to these criteria, then, a lukewarm church will display the following profile: it will be indifferent to its own theological confusions, uninterested in responding to challenges that confront its traditions, and isolated from the major problems and issues of its social environment.

How did the Protestant oldline lose vitality? Cobb does not attempt a comprehensive answer to this question, but he does proffer two quite different kinds of explanation -- one historical, the other theological. Lukewarmness may characterize late 20th-cen tury oldline churches, but historical perspective shows that it has been long in coming. Fervent belief, passionate shared convictions, the central place of faith itself did not suddenly disappear. The last three centuries have spawned intellectual movements that challenged and eventually eroded many pre 18th-century religious certainties. In Cobb's view these challenges are not entirely bad. They confronted and weakened older fanaticisms and pressed the church to acknowledge that it was not in the business of astronomy, geology, biology and history. The Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, a new nationalism requiring new social loyalties, and historical consciousness all affected the church's traditional way of relating its beliefs to the world. But whatever bracing effect these challenges to tradition may have had upon the church, the ensuing relativism of cultural forms and world views eroded established beliefs and with that a certain kind of religious vitality.

Cobb's theological explanation of religious vitality's decline draws on a recurring theme in his recent works: the need for lay theology and theological thinking as part of the everyday life of every congregation and every Christian. Cobb assumes that a democratization of theology is the normal and desirable state of the oldline churches. Thus he can say that the "professionalization" that reduces theology to a specialized undertaking endemic to the seminary -- in general to the academic world -- contributes to the story of the church's abandonment of its theological vocation. Having given theology over to the professors, the church now struggles untheologically with it own malaise, crises and societal obligations, which means for Cobb that the church struggles without any distinctively Christian perspective to guide it. Theology is neither an academic discipline nor a set of doctrines for Cobb, but a thinking about anything and everything from a Christian perspective. If Cobb is right, then it follows that theology is a feature of the Christian life and is something that can and should be done by all believers and congregations. If theology is not part of the Christian life, then other perspectives will dominate the churches' responses (or nonresponses) to society and to its own challenged beliefs.

In the last three chapters of Reclaiming the Church, Cobb explores what a reclaimed church -- one restored to vitality -- would look like. Instead of exploring specific strategies of change, he describes the content of a transformed churchly life. But transformation is one of at least two ways in which the church can respond to the problem of lukewarmness. The church can also follow the path of renewal. Renewal is the term Cobb uses when the church focuses on its own interior problems and seeks to recover the church's authentic tradition in order to correct various cultural idolatries. Transformation, for Cobb, includes renewal, but fosters broader societal engagements and even global concerns. Since, for example, self-absolutizing religions are part of ethnic and intra national conflicts across the globe, the path of transformation attempts to understand and mediate the conflicts of other faiths. And because transformation calls for genuinely theological responses, it is important that the churches be as clear as possible about what they mean by salvation and about Cod. If the church is simply muddled about such things, then it will hardly approach churchly and worldly problems from a distinctively Christian perspective.

Cobb's book is less an academic than a proclamatory and even prophetic work. It offers a theological diagnosis of church culpability and possibility rather than a social explanation of decline. Cobb's theological approach to oldline decline lends the book power and relevance and at the same time raises questions and new issues. In that light, then, I would like to think with and possibly beyond Cobb, not to discredit his ideas but to clarify and supplement them. I begin with some queries.

1. What is the relationship between lukewarmness and statistical indications of denominational decline? Or to ask it differently, what is the relationship between Cobb's signs of genuine vitality (societal engagement, responsiveness to challenges, repentance for past wrongs) and sociological criteria of ecclesial vitality such as numerical growth and attendance? However much the oldline churches can be faulted when evaluated according to Cobb's signs of vitality, those churches still come off better than churches of the new conservative religious center. Thus we have the paradox that, judged by some of Cobb's criteria, the conservative center is more "lukewarm" than the oldline, yet it is these churches that have become numerous, large, wealthy and popular. By this line of reasoning, the oldline is said to be in decline, not principally on theological grounds but largely in terms of numbers.

The question is whether Cobb in the end measures ecclesial decline in theological or sociological categories. At one point he says that lukewarmness is the deepest reason for the churches' decline. But it seems that the very things that make a religious faith genuinely vital also make it unmarketable. If that is so, the oldline's problem with membership actually could be a signal of vitality. Is Cobb's idea of ecclesial decline in fact informed at some level by a church-growth way of thinking that defines that decline in statistical rather than theological ways?

In the final analysis the vitality of oldline churches may be better measured by another of Cobb's norms: the criterion of piety or intensity of conviction. According to that yardstick, vitality, at least intuitively, seems to increase with fundamentalism and decrease with the broadened perspective (some would say relativism) that comes with the oldline's historical consciousness and responsiveness to societal needs. It may well be that oldline churches are indeed lukewarm in terms of intensity of conviction and, relatedly, are in both theological and sociological decline. One still wonders, however, how compatible such a measure is with Cobb's signs of genuine vitality according to which the oldline may be said to be at least relatively robust. If the oldline churches are lukewarm in terms of intensity of conviction, can they really be doing even relatively well when it comes to such signs of vitality as societal engagement and response to external challenge?

2. What is the relation between lukewarmness or the loss of vitabty and the churches' abandonment of their theological vocation? Cobb seems to regard the absence of theological thinking in the church as a or the cause of decline. This would suggest that (lay) theological thinking is an important part of the numerically strong conservative and fundamentalist churches that occupy the religious center. Yet I myself find very little of what Cobb calls theology in these churches. And if Philip Rieff is right, most American popular religion is therapeutic in content, whatever its prooftexting and traditionalist language.

Further, I find it difficult to get hold of the lay theological thinking that was supposedly in place in the oldline denominations in the period (whenever it was) prior to its present-day loss or abandonment. With certain exceptions, the Protestant movement always relied on a strong clergy -- laity distinction and with that a distinction between theologically educated clergy who proclaimed the word and interpreted the scriptures, and laity who depended on such educated clergy. It is not easy to discover past texts on the Christian life for which theological thinking in Cobb's sense has a central place.

Cobb is right when he says that the term theology has increasingly narrowed in meaning to the point where it now refers to an academic specialty. But was a democratization of theology and genuine lax' theology ever really developed in the Protestant movement? Pietism and Quakerism may be instances of such a phenomenon, but the movements do not seem typical of most oldline denominations. The paradigm of the theological educated clergy and the passive laity is one of the reasons why the Protestant movement has never thought it necessary to regard church education as theological education, or education in theological thinking. And this absence is not a recent phenomenon. I am suggesting that for many reasons -- hierar chical, educational, doctrinal -- the Protestant movement has rarely democratized theology. Cobb, then, maybe calling not for a retrieval but for something new in the churches.

3. Cobb provides the reader with an illuminating account of the historical and recent setting of oldline lukewarmness. He reviews the distant past to trace how Western civilization's move into the modern era challenged traditional religious beliefs. And Cobb hints at a theory of our postmodern condition when he describes certain endings and new beginnings characteristic of our time: Eurocentrism, nationalism and Enlightenment rationalism. I have no disagreements with Cobb on these broad matters, but something seems to be missing in his account of the social forces at work behind the oldline's reduced vitality. I have in mind the sorts of analyses we find in thinkers such as Spengler, Nietzsche, Marcuse and Lyotard. That missing something falls into an area about which Cobb is both knowledgable and concerned: economics. Consider the way the predominantly marketing and consumer society in which most Westerners live has transformed virtually all traditional institutions (governments, corporations, universities) and created new or transformed institutions (the media, entertainment and leisure, professional sports, communications).

This massive cultural transformation, called by some the rise of the postmodern era, has transformed everything: travel and tourism, reading, the "high arts," popular arts, health care, gender roles, the places where "wisdom" is deposited and sought, the relation of religion to the state, family continuity, sexuality, patterns of physical activity. In and through these institutional changes, American religious life has been reshaped. This complex of economically driven changes has displaced religion as the primary location of values and institutional loyalty and as the primary community of human relations. And this displacement is true even for groups who claim that Jesus, religion and the Bible remain fundamental for their identity. The typical postmodern lives in and is influenced by a variety of institutions -- each one promoting its own world of meaning and value -- which compete with each other for the loyalty, time and energy of the population.

Moreover, the social shift I describe has isolated certain powerful institutions (corporate, military, governmental, media, entertainment) from the influence of the so- called normative institutions such as education, religion and the arts. Indeed, the great cultural transformation of our time has changed the character of these normative institutions, drawing them into the marketplace and the world of image-making, of salesmanship and of managerial orientations. This massive shift has had a devastating effect on the once-deep cultural values that exerted their force upon most of society's institutions -- values of truth, duty, discipline, reading, beauty, family, tradition, justice, among many others. To the degree that members of oldline Protestant denominations participate in this reinstitutionalization of society and in the consequent erosion of deep values, their loyalties will be dispersed over a number of different social worlds, they will exist without what JeanFrancois Lyotard has termed a societal "master narrative," and they will surely experience lukewarmness with respect to traditional faith.

4. Does Cobb's diagnosis and prognosis so privilege historical and theological modes of explanation that something much closer at hand is missed, namely religious insti tutional dynamics? Cobb approaches institutional analysis of religion when he complains about the professionalization of theology. That direction of thought could open up an important and complex phenomenon: the rise of distinctive institutions withih the church itself that are tied to the ways churches organize themselves to survive over time and get their job done. Once these institutional structures are in place they create in their members distinctive expectations and non-expectations, ideas of what is and is not possible, and loyalties to the structures themselves. For example, in order to attract or keep a membership, a typical congregation must make the Sunday morning event work, and to do that it must have a certain kind of minister, music, ethos and preaching.

This very focus on the urgencies of Sunday morning creates criteria for clerical leadership that downplay theological thinking, theological education as a church activity; and congregations' responses to societal problems. Another example: the relation between obtaining tenure in a seminary faculty and precise competence in an academic field creates faculty identities and lifelong work pattems that isolate them from concern about the problems other institutions face, such as the problems of congregations and denominational bodies. Yet another example: the monetary health of denominational bureaucracies is delicately dependent on harmony with the prevailing ethos of the culture with respect to "controversial issues." Consequently, its ability to provide leadership in restoring a theological vocation to the church, on these issues and others, maybe severely limited from the outset. When I look at oldline denominations, I am less worriedried about their numerical and demographic troubles than I am about the sorts of institutions they have become, especialli' as they struggle with their quantitative problems. I think Cobb has given us a prophetic if not always clear version of a transformative agenda for these churches. He has not focused on what the churches are specifically up against even if they were in agreement about restoring their theological vocation, conversing with other faiths and so forth. The church institutions now in place -- congregations, seminaries, church boards, as well as the multiple institutions of society -- are all oriented to sustaining the conditions of their own survival, and in most cases sustaining the conditions of survival means maintaining the status quo. An institutional momentum exists, in other words, that resists transformation. Recognition of such an institutional stasis moves us to think beyond Cobb.

Cobb makes no claim to be predictive. He is a ware that the oldline churches may not open themselves to transformation. I share his hesitance to make claims about the future. Pressed by global, economic and transition anxieties, Protestant America is in a conservative mood. In most settings, liberal and even theological are pejorative words. In this conservative mood the oldline churches resurrect issues and alienations they thought they had put behind them: issues of creedal subscription, of science and evolution, biblical inerrancy, and moral casuistry. As long as the mood prevails, I doubt that the churches are capable of responding positively to a strategy of transformation. I think Cobb is right to sense in the oldline a torpor, a certain failure of nerve, although it is very difficult to sharpen that perception into an argument without undue idealization of the past.

I must confess at this point that I do not have an explanation for low ecclesial vitality. To explain statistical decline by saying that, beginning in the 1960s, a generation of people in their teens and 20s more or less dropped out of the oldline churches is specific and clear. But how do we account for that? If the oldline has not retained its own young adults, is it because of "lukewarmness"? And if we grant that notion, what contributed to making lukewarmness the prevailing quality of oldline church life? Are the oldline churches, as nonfundamentalist, made up of people who so participate in the many worlds of American life that their religion is thereby rendered secondary, secular, irrelevant and therapeutic? I am not sure.

What intrigues me is that certain specific oldline congregations do manifest vitality and show the marks of transformation. Perhaps that is where the leaders of the oldline denominations should begin in their search for a strategy of change. How is it that some congregations turn their concerns away from their own survival toward the needs of their local situation, mount credible programs of education and retain an ecumenical spirit to the point of dialogue with Jewish and other faiths? If there are such congregations, the "lukewarm" church at large has in its mist some models of vitality. Close study of those models may he the best strategy for reclaiming the church.