A crisis of their own making

AndoverNewtonThe decline of the mainline church has been well documented. Membership in denominations like my former one–the Presbyterian Church (USA)–reached their peak in the 1960. Membership has steadily declined since that time. The reduction in membership means that current models for ministry cannot be adequately funded, which has produced significant personnel reductions at denominational headquarters, and elsewhere too.

It’s common knowledge that mainline congregations are, on average, so small that they are unable to fund a full-time pastor. One member of a former presbytery ended her pastoral career by closing a string of churches.  She was ignominiously known as “the closer.”

Presbyteries, too, have become expert in shuttering buildings (churches and camps), and selling them off in order to remain solvent. Flush with cash, they proclaim themselves to be “change agents” who are turning the presbytery or synod around. “God is doing a new thing,” they say. What really seems to be happening may be communicated in the words of Dire Straits: “something for nothing and your chicks for free.”

Yet, these are not the only victims of the mainline malaise. A fresh wave of closures looms: seminaries.

Episcopal Divinity School in Boston has announced that it will cease to grant degrees–kind of a big part in being an institution of higher education–in 2017. Further, Andover-Newton has announced that it will close its Massachusetts campus and merge with Yale Divinity School. What’s significant about Andover-Newton’s closure is that it is the oldest graduate school of theology in the United States.

This semester I’m in a doctoral seminar studying the Old Princeton Theology in the context of 19th century American theology. Andover-Newton was founded out of congregationalist concern at the influence of Harvard University, which by the early 19th Century was essentially a Unitarian school.

Orthodox congregationalists needed an institution in which to train their clergy that was committed to classical Christianity rather than the half-digested and regurgitated Romanticism knows as Unitarianism. Andover-Newton was their way of ensuring orthodox clergy to compete with the Unitarians and the “enthusiasts” of popular revivalism.

What Harvard once was, Andover-Newton would become, indeed has become. And now it’s closing.

Those divinity schools and seminaries that are flourishing are the ones who have maintained a healthy denominational identity and have, at the same time, created an intellectual community that is amenable to a wide variety of students–including evangelicals. 

They connect to their church, but are well-known enough to be respected by other churches, and they maintain a small, but important evangelical presence. Examples include: Duke Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary. They are, of course, the outliers.

Most mainline schools are responsible for creating the theological disaster that is the mainline church itself. The seminaries have created the church in their image and the result has been woeful.

When the church comes to view itself as a social movement dedicated to subjective experience and political change, people quickly discover that there are better ways to do that than being a pastor.

And when pastors realize that their denomination believes that religion is simply subjective experience and that God–such as He exists–is more akin to the aggregate of religious experiences than a personal being, they decide that–all in all–the job of pastor is too darn hard to be done for something tantamount to other people’s fancies.