An interesting interview between Reinhold Niebuhr and Mike Wallace from back in the day… I’m struck by the sense of existential threat that permeates their discussion. At one point, they discuss America’s current fear of either communist conquest or nuclear destruction.
Given the recent memories of the violence and evil of WWII, and the presence of this sense of continuing conflict, is it any wonder that churches were full at this time, and that participation in church was at its height? Such a great threat on the minds of so many would seem to be a pretty compelling reason to be in church. When we locate the “golden days” of American church in the 1950’s, are we white-washing the outside cultural influences that led to that period? It would be as if someone tried to attribute the increase of church-going in the months after September 11th to an inexplicable improvement in Sunday-schools during that period of time. Existential threat always leads to existential engagement, church programs rarely have anything to say to that.
My point isn’t to “debunk” these periods as important for the church, but rather to suggest that membership has always been a suspect way to measure vitality and success for church communities, and that to achieve vitality we should avoid dreaming up “golden days” that didn’t exist, and yet we long to “return” to, either in our culture or our churches. Churches (and other houses of faith) are indeed a great place to ask questions as a community and a people when we face existential threats… but I think true vitality comes when we help each other face the myriad tiny threats and rewards of life, as well, and its here that I think we have to engage our future, our imagination, and our energy.