The old bluegrass/country song, "I’m Crying My Heart Out Over You," contains these plaintive words: "I was blind, I could not see that you meant the world to me; and like a fool I stood and watched you go." Are we likewise blind today to the slipping away of our religious heritage and traditions?
My own church (Episcopal) is experiencing a greater loss of members than most others. Some time ago I wrote a letter expressing my concern to our senior warden (sort of like the chairman of the board of deacons, but not exactly). He acknowledged my concerns without comment and passed them on to the Rector (pastor) from whom I have yet to hear a word. It seems nobody wants to talk about our obviously declining membership, hoping it will all go away. With our rather rigid traditions and hierarchical governing structure, we Episcopalians are in danger of standing there like a fool and watching the Church go without a whimper.
Born into the Presbyterian Church, I spent most of my adult life as a Methodist. I joined the Episcopal Church after retirement and quickly discovered I had really been an Episcopalian my entire life without realizing it. While all of the aforementioned denominations are strong on tradition, structure and stability, due to their rigid hierarchical polity they are slow to respond to change. I would also include the Catholic Church in this category, maybe even the most inflexible of all. Why are these mainline denominations losing members? But just as important, I think, how are the new nondenominational megachurches bucking this trend and growing? These innovative congregations apparently are meeting needs not being met by the more traditional churches. What is their secret?
Not hidebound by tradition or entrenched old guard leadership, many megachurches immediately involve new members in activities and responsibilities that meet their personal needs as well as those of the church. I’ve read of a church in Alabama with a policy that restricts committee chair people from serving again in that capacity for two years after their term is up. This discourages the building up of cliques and exclusivity and encourages new members to get involved immediately. It must work because the church, a downtown congregation, grew from a few hundred members to several thousand in just a few short years.
Megachurches here in northwest Georgia? Probably not. I believe the greatest potential for new leadership and revitalization probably lies within the Baptist faith; Southern, Independent, hard-shell, soft-shell, Primitive and all the rest. The Baptist congregational structure with its autonomy, democratic rule and traditions of personal responsibility and activism uniquely equips the church with the wherewithal to confront today’s secularizing trends. Baptists, like the rest of us, have their shortcomings, but lack of motivation, dedication and effort are not on the list. In 1791 Virginia Baptists pressured James Madison, "the Father of the Constitution," to include a Freedom of Religion Clause in the First Constitutional Amendment. Today’s Baptists should likewise be able to meet the challenge of restoring our nation’s religious zeal and commitment.
On the negative side: To their everlasting credit the Southern Baptists finally apologized to African Americans for their nineteenth century stance on race and slavery. Will it take them another 150 years to apologize to women and grant them their rightful place in the Church?
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at email@example.com.