Church shopping and the Church Alumni Society


Marcus Borg responded in this way to the recent Pew Forum survey that revealed that a significant percentage of Americans have switched their religious affiliation from the one they were brought up in:

I think this is healthy. It suggests that many people have moved beyond their socialization within a particular form of Christianity to a thoughtful (and sometimes agonizing) re-assessment of what it means to be Christian.

And I suspect that most of these have moved from a more conventional and conservative form of Christianity to a more progressive form. This is encouraging.

I appreciate his optimism, but I wonder how much of this church shopping really does have to do with people finding their way to progressive faith. Certainly, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction among people who were brought up within certain forms of Christian orthodoxy and who then realized that they could no longer accept the dogmas they were once taught. But how many of those people have switched from a given affiliation to a more progressive one, and how many have dropped out of Christian churches altogether? In other words, how many people are successfully finding progressive Christian denominations they can call home, and how many have instead simply given up and instead joined the ranks of the Church Alumni Society?

My recent series of blog entries concerning Bart Ehrman illustrates this point. Many people who realize that the old orthodoxy is not tenable (like Ehrman) do not find their way to progressive Christianity. Instead, they just give up.


WES ELLIS said...

These are good thoughts. I have seen enough people "give up" that I can confidently agree that this is often the case.
I just want to point out that there is a growing trend of people going back to more traditional Christian churches- more liturgical ones. "Progressive" doesn't always mean "not-traditional."

Gary said...

I for one share your skepticism with Marcus Borg's comments. I cannot speak of the situation for the American church, in Australia the progressive movement is fledgling - in fact, in the town I now live, there are little to no options available, I am quite a distance away from any church that would say hold the Living the Questions series or be friendly towards John Shelby Spong. In my case, the Church Alumni is pretty much the only option. Still, I hold out hope that the times are changing.

John Shuck said...

There is a review in the latest Christian Century of a book entitled something like, Why Liberal Churches are Growing. I don't have the magazine at hand.

I might pick up the book. The quote from the book (again, paraphrasing from memory) was that churches that at are thoughtful, and make you want to be there, and have made the decision for progressive thinking and action are in fact, growing.

Obviously, there are many factors involved, but it appears at least from my experience is that there is a need and a desire for progressive communities.

I like to think that I am fortunate to pastor such a place.

David Stoker said...

I think you are right in that the article shows that people are simply leaving organized religious affiliation and not necessarily shopping around. The largest "denomination" in the study was "unaffiliated." It has become a cultural norm to be a perpetual fence sitter, to believe in everything yet believe in nothing. It is more 'enlightened' and 'progressive' to have no religious affiliation and simply speak kind words of acceptance and tolerance. Such a position is politically correct and also quite convenient to justify personal choices as opposed to sacrifice to adhere to law. Wealth has created an apathetic population. The biblical word that comes to mind "lukewarm."

Mystical Seeker said...


Good point about traditional liturgy. A lot of churches with progressive theology remain very traditional in their worship. One thing about that, though, is that this tradition often includes traditional creedal recitations or liturgical expressions of traditional theology. I often feel that there is a bit of a disconnect going on there. But a lot of people, like Borg for example, have no problem reciting creeds that they don't take literally. I can't say I feel that way myself.


In a lot of ways I think that the progressive movement is also fledgling in the USA. I think a lot of people in smaller towns, for example, are not likely to find progressive churches. Even where I live in San Francisco, a lot of self-described progressive churches are more progressive on social or political issues by traditional on matters of theology.


I agree that you are fortunate to pastor such a congregation, and I am sure that your congregation is fortunate to have you as a pastor.

Frank said...

Reciting creeds is a tough thing. I choked just yesterday trying to recite the Nicene Creed at mass.

The big question about creeds is: What does it mean to be part of a faith tradition? If we value the concept of a faith tradition, then that means being part of a community that may profess things we as individuals don't necessarily agree with. Like my former spiritual advisor told me, the one thing you can be sure of when you are in community is that there is going to be conflict--ideological as well as personal. So when to stay in commuity and when to jump ship?

The tradition is greater than the individual, but the individual should also affect the tradition. When it works, there should be an interplay between the tradition and the individual, but as of right now I'm not exactly sure what that should look like.

By ignoring the faith traditions, a person risks doing the equivalent of medieval book burning because they've decided all those traditions are crap, but they don't know what the heck they're throwing away. They can't believe there is value there, but it may very well be their own short-sightedness. But sometimes those traditions don't allow room for new ideas or for the spirit to breathe, either.

There's a time to cry "BULLSHIT!". Like Job, there are times when you just gotta say "This is a bunch of crap" no matter how much your friends are harping on you to swallow their own brand of short-sighted theology.

(Sorry, I'm kind of Job-crazy these days writing a paper on Theodicy/suffering in Job.... Gustavo Gutierrez's book on Job positively dropped me to the floor, and Daniel Berrigan's wasn't far behind, either).

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, I agree with you that faith traditions should not be ignored. I think that in my own mind there is a difference between saying, "Here is what many people historically believed", and "You are to affirm that you believe this as well."

Frank said...

But doesn't honoring a faith tradition--at some point--mean participating in it?

Mystical Seeker said...

Well, I'm not sure what it means to say that you "honor" a faith tradition. Some faith traditions are, I think plainly wrong and not very honorable. We can look at the history to see where we came from so that we can grow and develop from what was in the past.

The Hebrew Bible tells us of many ancient practices and beliefs that modern day Christians don't accept. They honor the Hebrew Bible (and it is in fact part of their canon), but they don't participate in all the ancient practices that are described there. They don't consider God to be a tribal deity, for they might be troubled by some of the descriptions of divinely-inspired genocide, and they don't accept all the customs, laws, and temple practices valid for them today. Does that mean that modern-day Christians don't honor the Old Testament?

Frank said...

Then maybe its a question of degree--or walking the narrow path, as Matthew commented in another post. Throwing out everything haphazardly is just as bad as adhering to everything absolutely. So I guess the goal for me is to live in that tension between individual experience and a faith tradition and not throwing myself too strongly one way or the other.

My concern is that very often people feel like they are making informed decisions only to find out later they threw out the baby with the bathwater. Parents who keep their distance from the church only to find out later that the symbols, practices and memories from their childhood are things they draw upon later in life, but in the meantime they deprived their own kids of growing up in a church.

That's why I used the analogy of medieval book burning. People sure thought they were making an informed decison by chucking Aristosthenes into the fire, but they had no idea the treasures they were destroying, not the least of which was the adapability of those ancient ideas to their own Christian religion--a flexiblity they couldn't imagine at the time.

So I guess in my heart of hearts I am careful to "honor" a faith tradition more than just considering it or acknowledging it, but in some sense to .... defer to it? I'm not sure what the right word is here.

When to be in community and when not to be is one of the most difficult questions in theology, right up there with theodicy and theism.