I figure 1957 was the high-water mark of mainline Protestantism in the U.S. Although mainline churches kept growing until 1965, it was 1957 when everything seemed right in the mainline world.
Churches were full on Sunday morning. Sunday schools added classes. Young adults formed by World War II stepped into church leadership. Sunday worship seemed a timeless continuation of what ought to be and always would be.
This is the year that many church leaders hope will come again. Their strategies for revitalization are really re-1957-ization.
If you look at what actually happened in 1957, however, you can see signs of societal changes that would challenge mainline churches. (See wikipedia.org/wiki/1957.)
School integration battles like Little Rock, Arkansas, spawned white-flight suburbs and a fundamental shift from urban neighborhoods to suburban sprawl. The Cold War began in earnest and the first U.S. soldier died in Vietnam — two sources of the profound instability that would sap Americans’ confidence.
In the utter perfection of hindsight, church leaders could have seen that steady-on-course was doomed. Children were about to become suburbanized and caught up in pop culture. Men were about to lose their jobs. Women were becoming restless at home. Seemingly solid enterprises like corner hardware stores were about to start dying.
Church leaders have tended to say, “Who could have known?” But some did know. For example, evangelical churches began building all-in-one family centers along suburban interchanges. Mainline leaders should have been studying trends, like the surging divorce rate, not fighting against change.
Over and done with, of course. But it raises the question of what church leaders should be noticing today. I don’t have a crystal ball, but here is my top-four list of what ought to inform church planning.
1. Sunday morning is gone as a growth engine. Any church that builds its future on Sunday morning worship is likely to fail. The positive side: it isn’t faith that has gone away. People of all ages are as hungry for faith as ever. Sunday morning just occupies a different place in our culture.
2. Extremist religion is terrifying everyone. The tendency to say, “We are right and everyone else is wrong,” no longer works. Faith communities need to embrace pluralism, ambiguity, collaboration and humility.
3. Incomes are falling, job security is falling, self-confidence is falling. Greed is winning. The social agenda needs to be economic justice and dealing with deprivation. Sexuality and gender politics need to step back. Churches should be thinking how they can provide jobs, house the elderly and form partnerships with neighbors.
4. U.S. education is starving to death. Churches need to get in the education business, such as preschools for at-risk children, day schools with affordable fees, supplementary-learning programs, in-school tutoring.
In all of this, church leaders need to look outward. Radically outward.
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