Essentially I’m ripping off the title from a post of Rod Dreher’s, wherein he discusses “a radical gay rights nun” and what such attitudes have done to religious life in the US in recent decades. Jeanine Gramick, the sister in question, says complying with the Vatican’s desired oversight of the LCWR “would be a repudiation of all the renewal that we’ve done in religious life.” One of Rod’s readers asks, rhetorically, “How can renewal be synonymous with the collapse of religious life?” And collapse it has, at least as measured in numbers. In 2007, there were 60,642 religious women, compared to 46,451 today in 2012. In 1965 there were about 185,000 religious women.
But it’s not just Catholic religious life taking a numerical hit. Catholics in general are declining as well; from 2000-2010, active Catholics declined by 5%. In Buffalo, New York, Catholic numbers have dropped by somewhere between 19% and 35%, depending on who’s doing the numbers. The mainline Protestant decline has been well-documented. Meanwhile, Mormon numbers have increased by 50% in the US since 2000.
It’s easy to say that conservative churches grow, while liberal churches decline, and in broad strokes that’s been shown to be true. But it’s not very precise. For churches can be more or less ‘conservative’ in life and doctrine but modern in what passes for liturgy (as is the case with many megachurches), and more or less ‘liberal’ in life and doctrine but traditional in liturgy (thinking here of certain ELCA or Episcopalian churches).
The temptation is to be “relevant,” either in terms of worship or in term of doctrine. And there lies the way of spiritual dessication. For the gospel challenges, confronts, and converts culture. When a church acculturates in doctrine, it has nothing distinctive to say, and those who stay are there to get affirmed, not saved. When a church acculturates in terms of worship, it may grow in terms of numbers for a little while, but Christian growth is often lacking in serious depth. Willow Creek discovered precisely that a few years ago in a searching, searing self-study.
What to do? A certain subset of evangelicals is counseling caving in the culture wars, whether Rachel Held Evans (with particular reference to the marriage amendment in NC, which won overwhelmingly) or Tony Jones (an ‘emergent’ Christian who came out in support of gay relationships a few years ago). It’s true that conservative rhetoric has often been less than charitable, and it’s also true that there’s a lot to be said about how the Church and the gospel might relate to culture and politics. But what Held Evans and Jones and others seem to be counseling (it’s tough to tell, because they usually do more complaining and criticizing than offering up positively what they really think and advocate) is a fundamental change in how Christians think about sexuality for the sake of the gospel.
But bending to the mores of the times seldom works. Better to hold fast to classic Christian convictions and remember Calvin’s dictum that “What can be truly said can be fittingly said.” For Christian faith isn’t something that adapts to culture in essentials; rather, the gospel confronts and converts culture (cf. the book of Acts). As Dean William Inge once said, “If you marry the spirit of your generation, you’ll be a widow in the next.”