My fiancé lives in Upstate New York, and so, of course, we very frequently travel back and forth to see one another (about once a week). The drive is long and winding, weaving up, down, and around endless mountain ranges and large expanses of uninhabited forest. In other words, time to think presents itself in no short supply. So, as I sped down Interstate 81, gobbling up mile after mile of asphalt on my return drive home, I found myself pondering the predicament of so many small, mainline Protestant churches today (including my own). Just as those great, green mountains towered over me, giant beasts overwhelming my vision behind and before, so too do many mountain-sized problems that threaten to swallow up our small Protestant churches. Many big issues are looming before us on the horizon---whether it be the increasing secularization of American society, the rapid decline of national church membership, or the rising Biblical illiteracy in our local congregations. And these are just a few of our very mountain-sized issues.
So, of course, it's tempting for us---both as clergy and as laity---to feel an urgent call to want to do something. Right now! The problem naturally is: where to begin?? And everyone has an opinion about the answer to this question! But since this is my page, I guess that means you get to hear my opinion. The many big issues facing small, mainline churches today can all be answered by a collective identity crisis. We mainline Protestants simply don't know who we are anymore. We keep attempting to define ourselves by the many sociopolitical issues of our time, thereby by aligning ourselves with the social agendas of other mainline Protestant churches and over/against other churches that we identify as more "evangelical" or "conservative." (And thus, we also wind up redefining these two terms over and over again until no one is sure what they really mean any more.) And while it's important to speak out against the evils of our time and to support those doing good in our world today, perhaps we have lost sight of the respective Protestant traditions we claim to be a part of. Perhaps we have lost sight of our identity that is continuously shaped and defined only by the one, Triune God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As I am Presbyterian, our modern identity crisis reminds me of one of the confessions adapted by the PC(U.S.A.): the Barmen Declaration. The Barmen Declaration was written in response to the German church leaders just before the beginning of WWII. The Barmen Declaration was concerned that churches were abandoning the traditions of the saints who had come before them and were allowing themselves to be defined by the popular social agendas of the day. Many German people had conflated patriotism and nationalism with the Christian gospel. As a result, many German churches aligned themselves with the Nazi Party. Now, do I believe our modern identity crisis can be rightly compared to that of pre-WWII Germany? Of course, not. But I do believe that the Barmen Declaration speaks to churches in identity crises and reminds us where our Christian identity truly comes from. Barmen reminds us that Jesus Christ is Lord over every aspect of our lives, including every aspect of the Church in our world (8.17). Barmen rejects the notion that the church can neglect the source of its identity and Gospel message in favor of "changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions (8.18)."
Thus, we mainline Protestants need not be weighed down by all of our mountain-sized problems. Instead, we must reunited around the source of all truth, the guiding light we can only find in the one, true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's not that we shouldn't have an opinion about the issues of our world today and be aware of the many sociopolitical problems we face. Quite the contrary! We should be very aware, prayerful, and active in the world we live. However, our identity as a church is not defined by the social issues of our time. It is defined by the our Lord, in whom we live, move, and have our very being. The very existence of the Church today is only dependent upon one thing: our God in heaven.