Thoughts on the Alleged Demise of Liberal Christianity

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Is the Decline of the Liberal Church a Class Issue?

One of the issues our denomination is loath to discuss aloud is the fact that our embrace of highly-educated clergy has led to the loss of the working-class portion of our population. We UM clergy do not speak the verbal- or body-language of the working class, who want to read the Bible in English and interpret it as absolute fact.

If one buys into the thesis of Paul Fussell in his 1983 book, "CLASS: A study of the American System of Social Status," 2/3 of the population is NOT middle, upper middle, or upper class. These days, class distinction is not a function of income (plumbers can make more than University professors). Rather, it is a function of education, lifestyle, and family values.

I would posit that at least from 1850, if not earlier, Methodism had evolved into a ministry to the "middle class," however that may have been contemporaneously defined at any point in time. We ministered to the "settled"; the "home missionaries" we sent out were there to start churches in newly developing communities, not to "create Disciples of Jesus Christ."

The truth is that the idea that most people are "middle class" is an aberration from the immediate post WWII era---when the industrial infrastructure of almost every northern hemisphere country EXCEPT the U.S. had been destroyed. We had no competition; wages for all workers rose to middle class levels, and we thought it was (pardon the pun) "declasse" to refer to anyone as "working class." Now that most nations have an industrial infrastructure, and many can put out product for a lower cost than U.S. companies, has led to (in constant dollars) a flat or declining wage level for working class people, who don't have the education or heritage (i.e., growing up in a family where both parents and maybe their grandparents had a college degree) to understand the subtleties of a more liberal theology.

Instead, many of these folks we left behind are like one man in a community I served, who told me (and I quote): "I used to go to (area megachurch #1, but then I changed and started attending (area megachurch #2). Now, though, I go to (area megachurch #3, because they have the best show."

Worship in the liberal church has always been interactive, even down to the responsive readings. We have never seen worship as a "show." We have focused on the proclaimed word, the sacraments, and the operation of our churches as institutions that collectively can do more than any one church could do individually. We have continued to do that when 2/3 of the "market" for churches has left our denominations for "shows" that create an emotional experience and require little commitment.

Is this wrong? Absolutely not. It only says we are back to the way society used to be, where some churches served working classes and Methodism tended to serve the "settled" who were middle class. It won't do much for the "metrics" that some love to embrace, but it IS our market.

Tom Griffith more than 5 years ago

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