When we look back at World War I 100 years after its start, it’s easy to see that public opinion was wrong in its optimism that the fighting that began in early summer would end by Christmas and all would be right with the world.
As I made a recent visit to the terrific National World War I Museum in Kansas City, I was struck by the inaccuracy of that prediction. But it made me wonder what public opinion is getting wrong today.
Let’s look at the conventional wisdom about mainline Protestant churches such as our PC(USA) denomination. In sum, it’s this: The future is dismal. The church is dying. Young people especially are becoming religiously unaffiliated. The empty churches of Europe are a harbinger of what will happen in the U.S. Churches that want to survive will have to downplay theology and emphasize “moral therapeutic deism,” a term introduced in a 2005 study about American youth and religion and later popularized by Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary.
The problem with this conventional wisdom is that the bleak picture of the future it paints may be as unreliable as the short-war prediction in the summer of 1914. For one thing, that dreary future fails to take into account the effect people who want a different future can have. In other words, that future is not predestined, to use a Calvinistic phrase that often is misunderstood.
In fact, we Presbyterians and other mainliners can create a vibrant future if we ground our efforts in prayer, refuse to abandon hope and use the brains God gave us. And there are reasons for hope and reasons to get to work.
For instance, who could have predicted 30 years ago that today same-sex marriage would be legal in a growing number of states or that the PC(USA) would allow ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians and allow pastors the option of officiating at same-sex marriages in states where that’s legal?
The widespread assumption has been that “conservative” denominations standing in that schoolhouse door would prevail and “liberal” denominations would wither away because they abandoned historical biblical teaching about homosexuality.
My view, however, is that the PC(USA) has chosen the right path in this and that 100 (or fewer) years from now most branches of Christianity will have joined us in much the same way that nearly all churches moved to stand for human liberty and abandoned support of slavery in the 19th century.
Of course, even that future is not guaranteed. If we want it, we must work for it.
My point is that no future — save in an eschatological sense — is foreordained. The predicted death of mainline denominations can prove to be as bad a forecast as was the notion that what became World War I would be short and sweet.
Mainliners must find ways to express anew our determination to make sure that our churches continue to offer the redeeming gospel of Jesus Christ tomorrow and tomorrow and for as many tomorrows as we can imagine.
Maybe that’s what predestination should mean in this era.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at billtammeus.typepad.com.