Read part two of this series here.
In part two of this series, some questions were raised about the changing religious landscape in the United States and what that might mean for the future of churches like First Baptist Church. In this conclusion to the series I will offer some interpretations, both positive and negative, of the data. It should be noted that unlike parts one and two, which were largely historical or presenting data, this conclusion will be a highly personal presentation based on my own education (Masters in Theological Studies from Boston University School of Theology and currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University) and experience working in and with churches. I hope you find my thoughts useful and provoking. And I welcome your own reflections on what the changing religious situation in this country means for churches like this one.
In presenting my thoughts, it is worth remembering the questions that were raised in part two and answering them in order.
- For 208 years, Andover Newton met particular needs related to its mission "to educate inspiring religious leaders". What needs have changed and what needs have not?
- What is the cause of the "shrinking applicant pool"? A recent report by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education contains some sobering numbers. However, it closes with a beacon of hope. “Here is some final good news: the measures that are good for a school’s enrollment picture—realistic institutional planning, incorporating new groups into old-line religious bodies, cultivating the young —are the measures that will help rebuild religion in North America.”
- Andover Newton says the ministry employment market is shrinking. Is the market shrinking or has the need for a particular kind of education or training changed, just as it has in other fields?
These questions basically raise the issue of dwindling numbers - in applications to schools, positions in churches and universities, and church attendance. But everything is hyper-specialized now. So I want to suggest that becoming smaller may not equal becoming less effective or important.
For example, I co-host a podcast about the intersection of theology and nerd cultures. One of the first guests on the show still publishes a print magazine about the Apple II computer. That computer was introduced in 1977, and all official support for it ended in 1993. As you can imagine, the audience interested in that machine is not a large percentage of the population. But they are dedicated and the magazine (a print magazine in 2016!) has turned a profit for years. There is also a yearly convention that had its best attendance ever last year. Perhaps similarly, as megachurches and nondenominational evangelical churches inspired by them spurn formal academic training in theology, the group left behind may be smaller yet devoted to deeply probing Christianity. In fact, without certain sorts of students that maybe never really wanted to be there, Andover Newton may have the chance to dig more deeply into student and faculty interests in classes. The people who show up weekly at First Baptist Church may be ready and willing to engage deep questions instead of getting hung up on superficial aspects of weekly religious rituals. People may be taking control of their religion instead of merely accepting what was traditionally given. The audience may be smaller, but it may also be more lively than ever.
Now for the bad side of the same coin. I applaud attempts to equip everyone with quality theological resources. Literally only a couple people read any given academic article in theology. The internet is making good theology more available and models of church are emerging that don’t require graduate school credentials for leadership As church leadership hierarchies are being flattened and democratized, formal theological training me be viewed as unnecessary even for the most devoted Christian interested in doing serious theology. Patheos has some big theological names writing for it. And I know some professors alternating between writing an academic book and then a popular book. If one’s church community does not require an accredited master’s degree, and there is enough serious theological content available for free, schools of theology may shrink. I believe such people are wrong in thinking they can get all they need outside of a formal classroom setting, but can see such sentiment in our society.
- Andover Newton considers itself a "Mainline Protestant" institution. Historically, First Baptist Church has considered itself a mainline protestant institution. Does the church still see itself (or desire to be seen) as such? Or does it envision being something else, maybe even a category in-and-of itself?
The label “Mainline Protestant” once stood for a rather progressive/liberal form of Christianity. Now I think it is fair to say it represents struggling conservatism, at least in the cultural imagination. It conjures images of institutions voting on whether to fully accept and embrace the humanity of GLBTQ individuals, and either approving of them by the slightest of margins after years of debate or quickly rejecting them by a large majority vote. However, I also dislike the new label “progressive” for churches filling the role Mainline Protestant churches once held. It seems weak. Don’t progress. Get there and be done with it. Don’t progress toward accepting LGBTQ individuals, science, and adherents of other religions. As a famous shoe company taught us, just do it!
- Andover Newton’s move is courageous and driven by their mission "to educate inspiring religious leaders." What is the mission that drives First Baptist Church?
Coming from the academy, I don’t think in terms of short mission statements as a business might. They seem too corporate and simplified for our complex religious situation. What does come to mind is deciding whether you primarily want to get people in the church, or you want people in the church to go out and engage the community. Is First Baptist Church trying to develop Christians with a progressive/liberal (LGBTQ affirming, pro science, etc.) identity, or be a place where such people briefly congregate then go do good in the world?
- Does Andover Newton’s experience affirm or contradict the Pew Religious Landscape Study? In the religious makeup of the United States, Mainline Protestants come in fifth place (14.7%) behind Evangelicals (25.4%), the unaffiliated religious “nones” (22.8%), Catholics (20.8%), and those having “nothing in particular” to say about religion (15.8%).
These things go in cycles. I anticipate/hope that the growing megachurches and evangelical institutions promoting anti-intellectualism will experience decline in a decade or two when older generations clinging to outdated beliefs are replaced by younger generations that won’t touch anything unwilling to accept gay people, science, and those from other religions and cultures. While it is important to speak to people where they are at, you should not be so concerned with trends that you abandon a lasting message and vision.
Throughout writing this series, Paul Tillich's The Courage To Be kept coming to mind. I also like the image of a lighthouse when thinking about the Christian journey. Specific institutions, symbols, rituals, and beliefs may need to change over time. But it is possible to continue being Christian, even if you don't know how that identification will continue. In fact, Christianity may be possible only if you accept that you can't know the specifics of that path. It may require courage and creativity to be Christian in surprising unexpected ways as you follow a distant light along unknown paths.