I began the introduction to my book The Fly in the Ointment with this true account of an exchange I had in a middle judicatory meeting.
“As a clergy member of the Council, I had conducted an analysis of the state of our member congregations and had been granted time on the agenda to present my findings. The first part of the presentation highlighting the decline in membership had nothing new to say that had not been spoken, written, and debated since the mid-sixties when the attrition began. New, however was the finding that the revenue for most churches in that association would soon drop near the fixed cost threshold where discretionary funds would evaporate to zero. Because the Presbytery is funded from the discretionary money of local churches, this meant that funding for the Presbytery would drop precipitously as church after church hit that threshold, and for those fortunate churches that were not approaching that threshold, there were many mission organizations competing with judicatories for those discretionary dollars.
“As I closed my presentation, there was an awkward silence, the kind I have since come to recognize as the tipping point between denial and despair…The silence finally broke and the straw fell in the direction of denial. ‘Well,’ spoke a seasoned member of the Council with an unblemished Presbyterian pedigree, ‘I have more faith than that.’ That ended the conversation. Unfortunately, it didn’t avert the funding crisis that was barreling down on that body of leaders.”
The pitting of faith against data is often portrayed as a characteristic of theological conservatives, who adopt a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, assert a 6,000 year old earth rather than the 4.5 billion years of modern cosmology, and believe, against all scientific evidence that a global flood crested above even the Himalayan mountains, tallest on earth.
However, conservatives do not hold a monopoly on irrationality. As illustrated in the story above, progressives, the people who hold the preponderance of power in denominational systems also suffer from their own brand of data aversion. Whereas more conservative folks tend to adhere to a biblical fundamentalism, progressives adopt an ecclesiastical fundamentalism. Ecclesiastical fundamentalism gives the church and its structures preeminence in its thinking even to the degree of ignoring data presaging its collapse in the name of faith.
The data is now clear. Only about 50% of the members in a typical congregation are clearly satisfied with what is happening in their church, over two thirds generally agree their members are simply going through the motions of religious activity, and less than a third of leaders in a typical denominational church feel positive about their middle judicatory. In any for-profit business, or non-profit organization for that matter, this kind of data would constitute a four alarm fire. Among many liberal denominations it is dismissed under the motto “but we have faith.” There is a particularly destructive brand of anti-intellectualism claiming the unexamined loyalty of some of the most highly educated persons in their respective denominations.
As a former researcher, I am alarmed by the a-scientific denial of global warming, the a-factual conspiratorial mythologies that pervade our discourse, and the zombie-like economic pronouncements that not only contradict the economic theory of decades, but common sense as well. However, simply framing this as a conservative issue lets the progressives among us off much too easily. Until progressives start paying attention to the actual experience of their members, and the data that registers their malaise and disillusionment, they do not deserve the air of superiority that holds their fellow conservative fundamentalists in such contempt.
I wonder these days if the irrational, anti-factual wave that seems to be sweeping across our land and many of our institutions with it does not find some of its origins in the conservative and progressive fundamentalisms found within our denominational systems. If so, it may be that our best course of action is to “become the change we seek.”