Chapter 1: Disease and Diagnosis

The Gospel and Our World
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 1: Disease and Diagnosis

The state of the American churches today is neither good nor bad, but indifferent. Taken as a whole, they are not sick or well, but in that uncomfortable in-between stage at which the patient is well enough to keep going and at least perfunctorily do his work, yet unable to do it with zest, enthusiasm, and effectiveness. The Body of Christ has many members, and not all of them are diseased. The creaking of rheumatic ecclesiastical joints does not necessarily mean that sight and hearing are impaired, and myopia on the race question and kindred matters does not mean that all the arteries are hardened. It is clear that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but it can hardly be said in a diagnostic sense that there is no health in us. Yet we are so far from full health, and hence so far from glorifying God as we ought, that the situation is serious. If any remedy is to be found, it must straightway be discovered and acted upon for the good of the patient and still more for his effective service to God in a world that desperately needs what the Church has to offer.

In the search for the roots of the present malaise of the churches a canvass of possible causes reveals symptoms of disease, but also highly encouraging evidences of residual health. Does the trouble lie in the lack of membership? Though every church could take care of more members and ought to be receiving more would be receiving more if a revival of John Wesley or Jonathan Edwards proportions were to sweep the country -- the situation at the point of membership is far from unhealthy. According to the latest figures available in the compilation made by the Christian Herald and presented in the Federal Council Information Service of November 20, 1948, the membership of 258 religious bodies in the United States is now over 77,500,000. (The number given is 77,386,188. However, this does not include the membership of the Church of Christ, Scientist, since this body’s Church Manual forbids the numbering of people and the reporting of such statistics for publication.) This includes 44,571,486 Protestants in 50 churches having a membership of 50,000 or more, with approximately another 1,500,000 in 173 smaller Pentecostal sects, 25,268,173 Roman Catholics, 4,641,000 Jews, nearly 1,000,000 Eastern Orthodox, 70,000 Buddhists, and 150,000 members of the International General Assembly of Spiritualists. The most significant deductions from these figures are, first, that more than half of the people of the United States are now members of religious bodies -- in the neighborhood of 58 per cent -- and second, that growth in church membership reveals a steady increase, not only numerically but in proportion to the general population. A survey of membership trends from 1926 to 1947 shows that church membership increased about 40 per cent in that period, while the population of the country as a whole increased only 24 per cent. Compared with the approximately 5 per cent who were members of churches at the end of the colonial period our present situation is not bad, (Year Book of American Churches, 1947 ed., p. 159.) and with more than half the population in churches Christians could make a very significant impact on our society if these churches were acting vitally and concertedly.

Or does the trouble lie in our unholy divisions, of which we have been hearing much in these days of new ecumenical emphasis? Certainly this is a symptom of grave disorder, for these same statistics point to the existence of 223 different Protestant bodies in the United States, only 50 of which have memberships of 50,000 or more. Most of these have names quite unfamiliar to --in many instances never heard of by -- the membership of the larger bodies. Ask an ordinary Baptist, whether Northern or Southern, to give the distinguishing characteristics of Duck River Baptists or Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists or General Six-Principle Baptists or any of the rest of the twenty-three divisions of that communion, and he may hem and haw a little or use his traditional independency flatly to repudiate such nonsense! Many Methodists know that The Methodist Church was formed by the union of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church; some know that there are also A.M.E. and A.M.E. Zion and C. M. E. churches; relatively few know that in spite of the historic union in 1939 there are still nineteen brands of Methodism in the United States.

Such pluralism in the American ecclesiastical scene is a symptom of disorder. Yet it may be doubted that it is more than a symptom, for the root lies deeper. Indeed, such diversity could be an asset as a demonstration not only of the American way of freedom of worship but of the rich variety of gifts within the household of faith, if the churches understood each other and were working toward a common end.

That there is not now adequate understanding and co-operation is a fact to be admitted and deplored. Yet if one surveys the contemporary scene in perspective, there are important signs of health. The Federal Council of Churches has just finished forty years of significant leadership in co-operative action among the major denominations; there are now more than seven hundred state, county, and city councils of churches across the nation; there is a vast deal of co-operative planning in missions, religious education, relief and reconstruction, stewardship, chaplaincies, women’s work, and other agencies of the Church -- enough so that the Plan Book of American Cooperative Christianity (Published for the Inter-Council Field Department by the Friendship Press, New York.) requires nearly a hundred pages to outline the projects of seven great interdenominational organizations along thirty-six different lines. Ecumenicity -- before, during, and since Amsterdam -- is in the air. The churches not only of the world but of the United States are closer together now than they have ever been in their history. What ails our churches is not basically our divisions but apparently something more malignant, the removal of which could go far toward healing these divisions.

Or is the trouble to be found in lack of financial support? There is clearly a correlation between what people think important and what they are willing to spend money on, and the notoriously low salaries of ministers in comparison with those in other skilled professions may be an index of ill health. Yet the giving of church members in the twenty-six larger denominations reporting to the United Stewardship Council runs in the aggregate well beyond $600,000,000 annually and is increasing steadily. In recent years church people have given with striking generosity to projects for overseas relief, and the salaries of ministers and the local staff are less inadequate than formerly. Clearly, if money could buy health, plenty of churches have enough to purchase it. Yet among the many "weak" churches of the land it is apparent that weakness is not to be precisely correlated with the size of the budget. Neither a man’s nor a church’s life seems to consist primarily in the abundance of the things possessed.

This reference to compensation of the clergy sends us investigating another possible explanation of the Church’s mediocre influence in our time. Does it lie in the mediocre quality of its leadership? Certainly without adequate leadership any church is doomed, and this lies close to the heart of the matter. Unless a minister has sufficient training, deep religious experience, good common sense, and a healthy mental attitude toward people and toward his work, he is not likely to make much of a go of his job. And plenty of factors present obstacles. In addition frequently to having personal financial worries, he is expected to be a superman -- a brilliant and engaging preacher, an administrator, financier, educator, counselor, pastor, priest, prophet, recreation leader, and general handy man -- and when he cannot measure up and criticism begins to be bandied about, he gets discouraged and frustrated. It is not good for any man to receive as many compliments to his face, as many barbs behind his back, as a minister usually gets. Endless meetings, whether called by himself or the denominational overhead, eat into his time for study and leave little time for thinking or for sermon preparation. A thousand details -- sometimes important to the lives of people, often trivial -- consume his energy. He works too hard and nerve strain wears him out, or he works too little and after a while lethargy turns into laziness. The temptations which assail the spirit of a minister are subtle but powerful, and few fully resist them.

Yet, surprisingly, the churches are full of competent, dedicated, mentally healthy, genuinely able ministers. Not all are such, but the number is very great. At least among the major denominations the leadership of the churches is generally in the hands of persons not only of insight and faith, but of high educational attainments. The number of those who have had both college and seminary training is large and continually rising. There are other professions in which the external educational requirements are higher, but there is no profession in which the combination of training plus the qualities of character essential to leadership is so often high. If the churches are sick, and many ministers along with them, this again is a symptom of a deeper disorder instead of being the fundamental cause.

Or does the trouble lie with the laity? Not only numerically, but from the standpoint of what the world sees of the Church, the laymen make up the greater part of it. If "the Church" is backward in demonstrations of racial equality, or conservative in economics, or lethargic in attacking the causes of war, it is mainly because church members in their actions lag behind the official pronouncements of the Church. There are plenty of such excellent statements -- formulated largely by ministers and adopted by the denominations, the Federal Council, and the World Council of Churches -- to which we have as yet only faint approximations in the political and social life of the rank and file of church members. Yet when one looks at the individual lives of the laymen in our churches, they are good, bad, and indifferent -- with overt badness very much in the minority. In the main they are good, kind, honest people; and in the sins which they recognize to be sins -- such as theft, drunkenness, and adultery -- the record of church people is generally so good that any aberration is immediately spotted by the press as headline news. In my observation laymen as they come are not nearly so crude or selfishly calculating as they are portrayed in the current best sellers, The Bishop’s Mantle and No Trumpet Before Him. Furthermore, when ministers get discouraged and seem to be accomplishing nothing, again and again their hearts are warmed by the fidelity of those laymen -- perhaps only one or two in a congregation -- who can always be depended on, who see at least partially what the minister is driving at, who in an unpretentious way are genuine Christian saints. In almost every church there is a "saving remnant," and advance toward the Kingdom seems to come most often through the faithful effort of minorities.

Another aspect of this question is of special relevance to a university community. This is the great dearth of college-trained men and women who work actively in the churches. The very persons who could give most intelligent and virile lay leadership have in many instances either forsaken the Church or are only casually connected with it.

For this there are many reasons, both ideological and social. Bad theology is often heard in churches, and to one steeped in naturalistic presuppositions any theology is apt to be suspect. Worship, to one who does not accept its bases in belief, is apt to seem more like a cultic practice nurtured in mythology than a life-renewing force. Moral injunctions are likely to sound platitudinous and superfluous. During the college years a student’s religion must fight its way against the high-pressured tempo of the modern campus, the welter of competing social claims, the campus gods of football or fraternity or romance that leave little time or energy to think about religion and the Church. Then when one graduates it is hard to make the connection. Life is still high-pressured and is again set up around competing domestic or business or social claims. As a result college people often chide the Church for being back-numbered or irrelevant or dull, while in its sickness they who could be its best physicians pass by on the other side and leave it to get sicker.

Yet the situation is not all black. Among faculty members, alumni, and students there are those who do go to church, and a smaller but very precious group of those who work actively in its concerns. Religion is so deep-seated a human interest that it can be snowed under but never completely stifled, and on every campus there is a nucleus of students -- sometimes a good many, sometimes a small minority -- who care about their faith. Not all of those who are interested in religion are interested in the Church, but some are; and since the war there has been a decided upturn in the number of those considering the ministry and other forms of Christian service. As compared with twenty years ago when religious interest was more largely funneled through nondenominational agencies, the churches are more active in making contacts with students and among a virile minority are securing a better response. With students as confused and torn with strains as most of them now are, the field is open for an interpretation of Christian faith that will be, as the title of Rufus Jones’s last book puts it, "a call to what is vital.’,

This brings us to the heart of the problem. What are the churches trying to say? Has the Church a message with which really to confront the world? Does the layman or the student hear in the churches what can "speak to his condition"? Does the Christian gospel have in it that which can arrest and alter life? In short, has the gospel any power?

To suggest that it may be the gospel which is at fault is to call in question the foundations on which the Church rests and to which it owes its being. If the Church has nothing to say that challenges, remakes, upbuilds human life, it is only a respectable and semidecadent human institution, and nothing to worry much about if it goes out of business. Furthermore, to impugn the power of the gospel to transform life is to defy twenty centuries of Christian history in which it has been doing exactly that. However nerveless it may now seem, Christianity has been the dominant force of the Western world. To imply that there is something wrong with its gospel is but a short step from blasphemy on the one hand and a revelation of ignorance on the other.

Yet the gospel and the communication of the gospel are two different matters. Its communication is the most important task, under God, that any person can undertake. Upon its appropriation hang the issues of life and death -- certainly spiritual life and death, and in the atomic age physical life and death as well -- for countless millions of individuals in our time. Yet its communication is on the whole so inadequate that the greater part of our society, whether within or outside of the churches, fail to get any real awareness of the gospel’s meaning or its power.

Life goes on, for the most part, in our secular world as if the churches did not exist. The message which the churches attempt to communicate falls on deaf ears, not because the ears are really deaf, but because the Word of God is spoken in so strange a language or in such trivialities that it fails to be the Word of God to those who otherwise might hear it. If it is not understood, it is no word at all; if it consists only of moral platitudes or echoes the voice of the secular public, it is no word from God. Into both these pitfalls we have fallen, and unless we straightway by the help of God climb out of them, the Church bids fair to remain in its present enfeebled and impotent state.

On the highest authority we are told, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." This is our mandate from Christ -- to say what comes to us from God in ways that can be heard. Not all will hear and heed us; not all heard and heeded Jesus. But if the gospel is really proclaimed in ways that reach the mind and heart, it has within it such compelling force that some will listen, some lives will be changed, some changes in society will certainly take place. If it is not proclaimed, or if it is spoken in tones that cannot be heard, no power from God or man will give it saving help.

What then ails our churches? Inadequate numbers, unhealthy divisions, meager financial support, unprophetic leadership, lethargic congregations -- all these and many more symptoms of ill health are found. But at the root of them all lies the fact that the very thing for which the Church exists -- the proclamation of the gospel -- is being in our time so feebly done.

If this primary task were now being effectively accomplished, the churches in carrying a message of healing to a sick world would find healing for themselves. There is no better corrective for a feeling of general malaise than a sense of accomplishment. But as it is, great numbers of our churches drag along, well enough to do a good many things fairly well, not dead or even as near to dying as the cynics are prone to say, yet still not well enough to live, grow, and do their work with effectiveness and power. This sickly state is not a comfortable one. They had better get well soon, or they will soon get worse.