The Next Church at the Wittenberg Door


IF YOU DESPAIR over the Republican Party's apparent eagerness to tear itself apart over abortion, or wonder what's going to become of churches seemingly determined to do the same over issues like the ordination of homosexuals or the blessing of same-sex unions, you might find solace in history.

Only a few centuries ago European Christians were tearing themselves apart in attempts to explain the mysteries proclaimed in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Did the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, or was the body and blood merely present with the bread and wine? And so on.

Heretical matters

Modern Christians may find the differences between doctrines like transubstantiation and consubstantiation merely puzzling, but their forebears considered them matters of heresy or truth.

Meanwhile, 20th century churches are racked by their own stubborn disputes. Most of the big controversies have something to do with sex -- abortion, homosexuality, the ordination of openly gay men or women, the ordination of women (for Catholics and some conservative Protestant groups) and, for Catholics, the question of married clergy.

The Republican Party, of course, is not a religion, at least not officially so. But its recent divisions over abortion reflect its success in playing to a religious audience. Now that constituency is using its considerable muscle to get what it wants.

The great theological controversies of the Reformation got settled, resulting in a splintered Christendom. Now, the landscape of denominations familiar to Americans is undergoing its own strains. What will emerge?

The August Atlantic Monthly magazine features an exploration of the "Next Church." Writer Charles Trueheart visited tTC mega-churches around the country, the independent, entrepreneurial -- and huge -- churches that are vastly outstripping their stodgier cousins in membership growth. Their rolls reach into the thousands, and many of their members have little or no history of church participation.

These churches are so big and so devoid of churchly symbols like steeples, stained glass and organ pipes that they are unrecognizable to people familiar with more traditional churches. They are trying to fill a need for community among people foundering in a society that has lost familiar structures like neighborhood schools and extended families that once held people together. To do that, they offer all kinds of services -- not just worship services, but everything from child care to self-help programs to sports leagues.

To attract the membership base to support those activities, the Next Church must bridge the same divides over abortion and homosexuality that bedevil mainline churches. But they may be having more success.

Michael Foss, pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in suburban Minneapolis, tells Mr. Trueheart: "I'm convinced you can be a Christian on either side of those issues. One of the tragedies of the culture is the tendency to draw lines where they needn't be drawn. Christians ought to quit throwing rocks at Christians. We don't have to agree on everything. And these are side issues. What we're about is spiritual renewal."

Of course, history shows that Christians were throwing rocks at each other long before their obsession with sexual issues. History would also suggest that Pastor Foss' approach will eventually prevail.

The Next Church has something going for it that traditional churches currently lack -- the dynamism and confidence born of rapid growth. They're too busy forging the future to get stuck in the controversies of today.

Contrast that attitude with the do-or-die debates in mainline denominations:

The Episcopal Church put a retired bishop on trial earlier this year. He faced heresy charges for ordaining an openly gay man, but was acquitted by a jury of fellow bishops. Conservatives in the church promise a fight over the matter.

At its General Assembly this summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to consider a proposal that would ban the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and forbid ordained heterosexuals from having sex outside marriage. The prohibition would also extend to lay people who serve on governing boards of local churches.

The United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, has debated the ordination of homosexuals at every general conference since 1972. Current church policy prohibits the ordination of practicing homosexuals, but when the church voted this year to retain that policy 15 bishops protested.

Debate unmuffled

Meanwhile, despite numerous Vatican pronouncements, the Catholic Church hasn't yet succeeded in suppressing debate about the ordination of women or about the acceptance of married priests.

The list goes on.

So does the march of time, and the perspective it lends. After all, when was the last time churchgoers worried about the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation? Or pondered the implications of the doctrine of predestination?

How will the current debates be resolved? Take a look at the Next Church.

Or listen to the wag who asks: "Should we ordain homosexuals?" And answers his own question with another: "Why should we stop now?"

Sara Engram is deputy editorial page director of The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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