Identity and Inclusiveness:
The Twin Peaks of the Protestant Dilemma

David A. Roozen, Director
Center for Social and Religious Research
Hartford Seminary

March 17, 1993

For those of us who identify with mainline Protestantism, the last 25 years have been a unique time of challenge. Indeed that may be a kind way of describing a 20% loss in membership; the erosion of confidence in traditional patterns of authority; a loss of any
semblance of theological consensus; and shrinking budgets that must service an increasing number of emergent constituencies. But perhaps more importantly, if our studies of future changes in the age and family structure, in the racial and ethnic composition, and in the social and religious attitudes of the American population are even half way on target the challenges for oldline Protestant denominations will be even more severe, not less severe, as we move into the 21st century.

As food for our common thought about these challenges, I’d like to do three things this evening. First, provide a very cursory overview of mainline Protestantism’s recent past — you may have heard of the “one-minute” manager, well this will be a one minute history. Then, I would like to turn to the what I believe is the single most important societal change that the “mainline” has yet to come to grips with, and which I believe is the key to understanding our current situation. And finally, I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about the implications of this change for church leadership, and for how it sets up the tension between “identity” and “inclusiveness” as the twin peaks of the current Protestant dilemma.

So let’s begin with a historical time line of the last few decades — beginning in 1950.

(Figure one charts mainline Protestantism membership and the total population of the United States relative to 1950. For comparative purposes the membership of First Church, Guilford is also included, relative to 1960.)

During the 1950s the United States liked Ike, and the economic expansion and cultural optimism of the period carried through the Kennedy years of the early 1960s. It was a time of a general cultural consensus; what social commentators called “mass society.” Diversity was a seldom heard word, masked by the assimilationist ideals of the “melting pot.” There was a strong emphasis on family, birthing the baby boom and driving a migration to the outer-ring city neighborhoods and the suburbs. If there was a national enemy it was the external threat of communism. Mainline Protestantism was about shaping the values of individual conscience through preaching and teaching, and relatedly, mission was focused on getting people into congregations. The resulting emphasis on evangelism and new church development complimented the population explosion and suburbanization.

The Camelot of the Kennedy administration gave way to the social unrest of the Johnson and Nixon administration during the late 60s and early 70s, as first civil rights and then the VietNam war tore apart the social consensus. There was an enemy and it was within. The boomers hit the college campuses and majored in the then so-called “new morality.” It was a time of low birth rates, low marriage rates, and increasing divorce rates. It was a time of both rural and urban flight. The emergence of black power broke the “melting pot.” Within mainline Protestantism there was a theological turn from individual conscience to social-structural evil, displacing evangelism with social action. Membership began a steep decline, not because more people were leaving, but rather because fewer were joining.

The Carter years of the late 1970s continued the erosion of America’s confidence in itself and its myth of progress. It was a time of international terrorism and American hostages; a time of gas lines, Three Mile island and double digit inflation; a time when the President of the United States went on national television to suggest that the American people needed to scale back their expectations for a good life. The uncertainty of the social milieu carried over into mainline Protestantism. It was a time not only of lost faith in our country, but also in our mainline religious institutions as increasing numbers of the sons and daughters of mainline church members opted out of religion all together.

During the 1980s Ronald Reagan both rode and lead a reassertion of traditional American values — patriotism, family and free enterprise capitalism. The re-emergence of the political right elevated individualism over social responsibility and activated a strong polarization between the left and the right — a polarization intensified by the emergence of abortion, feminist, and gay rights movements. In the meantime the boomers began to settle into parenthood and career, with some conservative drift in their social and political attitudes, and some drift back into the church.

The political polarization between left and right had its counterpart within the denominations of mainstream Protestantism — the right carrying the banners of Biblical witness and evangelism; the left carrying banners of social justice and inclusiveness. With no clear victor, there were only more voices fighting for a shrinking pie of economic and faith resources. In the meantime the boomers’ drift back to the church helped moderate membership declines.

The political gridlock of the Bush administration also had its parallel within the denominational structures of mainline Protestantism. It was a time of initiative (and incrimination), but with little overall decisiveness. There was some re-invigoration of evangelism and new church development, but continued debates over theology, mission and inclusiveness. Both the church and society became aware that the future increasingly belonged to “new ethnics” — particularly Hispanics, but also Asians. Baby boomer family formation reached its peak.

With the election of Bill Clinton, American’s expressed their hope for change and frustration with gridlock. It remains to be seen, however, whether Americans are ready and able to make hard choices, especially if they have dollars attached to them. The situation in the political realm also appears to be true for mainline Protestantism. Demographically, the boomer family formation boost to mainline membership is waning as the front edge of this generation moves into the empty nest/empty pew stage. White, middle class birth rates remain below “reproduction” and this negative affect on mainline membership will be exacerbated by the small size of the “baby bust” generation that is moving into the family formation state of the life cycle. The most significant growth in the population in the next few decades will be among racial-ethnic groups, particularly Hispanic. Within the white population, the greatest biological growth will be among evangelicals.

One can argue with the numbers a bit, but few disagree with the overall assessment that the future institutional vigor of oldline Protestantism is our ability to reach out to new ethnic constituencies, while at the same time re-invigorating our engagement of our traditional core-politically moderate, white, family oriented, increasingly well educated, middle and upper class America. If putting it this way makes it sound like mainline Protestantism is in somewhat the same situation as our national political parties, that’s because there are, indeed, similarities. But what I would like to further suggest to you is that how successful the church is in meeting it’s challenge will be directly dependent upon our ability to come to grips with a fundamental re-structuring of American society that is only hinted at in the changing demographics, and which radically alters how we are in community together.

One cannot read any social/historical commentary on American society without finding a lengthy discussion of “individualism,” and how deeply it is ingrained in the American character. The individual-individual rights, individual liberty, individual choice, individual conscience — is the philosophical and experiential foundation of our entire social order and it has deep roots in the theology of reformation Protestantism. But for individualism to work as the grounding of social order, as our Puritan forbearers well understood, it must always be tempered by or in tension with notions of community that pull one toward a larger sense of a common good.

Traditionally, the most powerful communal influences in America have been: (1) the extended family; (2) the geographic small town or neighborhood in which all of life is connected through everyday, face-to-face encounters; and (3) especially powerful in the immediate post war years, a more or less singular image of the “American dream.” The “American Dream” was a consensual image of what America was, mediated through local geographic community structures such as the church, and re-enforced by our system of public schools and the then newly emerging mass media of television. While there always was some room for individual expression within these communal forces and some variation between communities, for the most part they imparted a homogenized, inevitability to our individual lives. We went to our parents church, we hung around with our cousins, we married our high school sweetheart, we went to work at the local mill, bought a house a mile away from where we grew up, we continued to go to our parent’s church, the town sheriff and all the local merchants knew everyone by name — including the fact that Uncle Bob had a little drinking problem, but that was OK because he never did anyone any harm. And although we tempted our children with “leaving it to Beaver;” that was alright too because in the end we knew that “Father knows best.”

Within such an ethos one could meaningfully write about “mass society;” one could have the audacity to propose a systematic theology; and America’s mainline denominations could think of themselves as established monoliths supporting and supported by the loyally of their ever increasing membership.

For most of us I suspect, including Robert Bellah in his provocative Habits of the Heart, those were the “wonder years.” And indeed for those of us who were a part of this mainstream of American life there is much to be thankful for. But the “wonder years” are a reality of the past, and to the extent we let their presuppositions inform our current behavior, or we nostalgically hope for their return, we miss the creative dynamic of the present and emerging future.

Traditional patterns of geographic and familial community have given way to what social commentators call multi-valiant communities of interest. In multi-valiant communities of interest tbe inevitableness and homogenizing nature of traditional geographic and familial patterns of community give way to multiple and disconnected communities of interest. “Diversity” and “choice” are the operative words for understanding the community and institutional structure of contemporary American society-including the religious market place,

And to be sure, religion in America today is a “market place,” with all the characteristics that modern markets have. Borrowing from those who spend their professional life analyzing the changing nature of the American market, this means that the religious sphere of American society is now: a highly segmented, consumer oriented/market place in which diversified holding companies, specialized market niches and local initiative are the critical components of institutional vitality.

Let’s explore for a moment the two key characteristics of this modern market dynamic. First, it is “highly segmented.” This means that there are a multitude of diverse options geared to and demanded by a diversity of specialized interests. Second, it is “consumer oriented,” which means that individuals chose their religion more than religions choosing their individuals.

Remember when you could only get two or three stations on your television? Now, not only do you get 60 to a 100 cable stations to choose from; but if none of these should catch your fancy, you can run down to the corner and rent any one of 10,000 video tapes. And the wonder of cable TV is not only that we can now choose from 60 to 100 channels, but that there is sufficient market to support each of the channels. Large numbers of people are choosing to watch each of the 60 or more channels at any given time. (And what is more, most tend to change channels during the commercials.)

Remember when people used to talk about American religion in terms of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish? This was the dominant image during the 1950’s. Well even back then it was evident to many people that within these broad traditions there were observable sub-divisions along the then most common lines of social differentiation–race, ethnicity and social class in particular. Differences in religious expression tended to follow social divisions.

As new social divisions emerge, should it be any surprise that there will be new religious divisions? Applied to today’s world this should alert us to the fact that in addition to race, ethnicity and class, we should find differences in religious expression along gender lines and sexual preference; along generational lines (“elderculture,” the “babyboom”, and most recently the “boomerang” generation — they go off to college and then come back home again, they try mamage for a while and then come back home again, etc. Is it any surprise that we should find differences in religious expression depending upon whether one is single or married; and if married depending upon whether one has children or does not; and if one has children whether it is a natural family, a blended family or a single parent family. Is it any surprise that we should find differences in religious expression depending upon whether one is an introvert or an extrovert; a thinker or a feeler; etc., etc. The possibilities are staggering, and so is the challenge to American religious institutions. But today we know that all of these shape and differentiate individual experience.

What is more, American society has increasingly provided the opportunity and permission for persons to claim their own personal experience, and to act out of the self interest related to that experience. Indeed this opportunity and permission has, with each succeeding generation, turned into a more deeply ingrained expectation. To again borrow from the political realm, one can even say that claiming one’s personal experience now is perceived as an entitlement.

In a recent book entitled Frameworks, Doug Walrath even goes so far as to call the latest generation of young adults (what I referred to above as the “boomerang” generation) the “calculators.” They are calculators, he argues, because they realize that they must make hard choices between equally attractive, but often mutually exclusive, options — either an outstanding career or an outstanding marriage; either a two-career household, or a household of children; either little league on Sunday morning or Sunday School.

So they calculate, carefully planning how to achieve and protect what they want. How do they approach the church? Walrath calls them “spiritual pragmatists” that want a faith that works for them. They feel free to chose or not to chose to be religious, and if they chose’ to be religious they choose congregations or groups that reflect and support their chosen life style.

Choices from among multiple options that support one’s particular experience and interests. Somehow it just doesn’t resinate with the image I grew up with of the church as God’s one foundation.

But Reginald Bibby, in a fascinating book entitled The Fragmented Gods, takes the analysis one step further with what he calls “religion ala carte.” He agrees with Walrath and others that the majority of persons in modern society — especially those under 45-selectively chose a congregation or religious tradition. But Bibby further argues that people then selectively chose what in this chosen congregation or tradition they will accept and in which they will participate. They see religious life in general and congregational life more specifically as a menu, from which they order ala carte.

Most importantly, Bibby argues that religion ala carte works well for people in modern society. It works because it is more adaptive to modern society than notions of religion as total commitment. Total commitment creates problems because it often puts the expectations of the different roles we play and the different communities to which we belong — spouse, employee, volunteer, church member, golfer, musician–into conflict with each other. Selectively choosing bits and pieces helps resolve the problem. Religion ala carte works so well because it allows an individual to chose a mode of religious expression that fits his or her own experience. It allows the individual to be the creator of his or her own universe.

But for religion ala carte to work there also needs to be a variety of religious expressions to choose from. For better or worse, modern society and contemporary theology has been graciously accommodating. Today we have, for example, orthodoxy and neo-orthodoxy; pentecostalism and neo-pentacostalism; fundamentalism and neo-fundamentalism; new guard and old guard evangelicals; modern and most-modern liberals; feminist, black, latino, gay liberationists; and environmental, new age, charismatic and monastic spirituality. And if you are more tuned into the television than to formal theology, with the flip of the switch on Sunday morning you can move from faith healing to its entreprenual counterpart — the power of positive thinking (complete with its “be happy attitudes”); or from the driving beat of hard rock gospel to the serenity of the eternal word network; or from the fire and brimstone of Jimmy Swaggert to the easy listening and smooth production of Pat Robinson or Robert Schuller.

If you prefer direct church participation, the large congregation down most any street provides the choice of four bible studies or 5 prayer groups; the choice of a spiritual retreat or any one of several support groups covering just about all gender, family cycle and disability possibilities; you can volunteer for the food pantry, the counseling center, or the legislative watch; you can attend the informal 8:30 service or the 11:00 high worship with full choir; on some Sundays you use the blue hymnal, on other Sundays the red hymnal, and on most Sundays at least one of the hymns is printed in the bulletin because it isn’t in either hymnal. And if the choices of the large program church distract you, there is always the small, intimate, traditional church just a little further down the street where finding a parking space or an empty pew is seldom a problem.

In summary, the social reality is religion ala carte in a highly segmented, consumer oriented religious market place; a religious market place and a society in which there is no longer any “mainline,” only a wide variety of often unconnected sidelines; a religious market place in which calling has been replaced with choice; a marketplace in which truth has been replaced with options.

If this is the social reality, what are our oldline Protestant institutions to do? There are obviously any number of different avenues through which we could pursue this question. But I’d like to conclude by speculating about the kind of organizational structure and leadership style appropriate to a highly segmented, consumer oriented, religious market place. And I need to emphasize “speculate” because, to be perfectly truthful, there isn’t much being written in the religious sector that really cuts to the heart of the matter in a comprehensive way. But there is an emerging literature on the subject in the corporate sector, and among the most provocative and comprehensive is management guru Tom Peter’s: Thriving on Chaos — Handbook for a Management Revolution. I can’t summarize all he says where, but I would like to mention a few key notions — all of which elaborate upon and expand older notions of “participatory leadership.”

First, Peters talks about the need to be “obsessed with listening”-listening to the consumer, listening to the diverse experiences of the people, listening to the market. Second, he talks about the need to diversify your product and relatedly the need to pursue fast paced innovation through the support of a host of small pilot starts and the support of fast failures. Not only do you have to be trying a lot of new things, but you have to be willing to recognize that many will not prove worth continuing, and be willing to “get out.” Third, he talks about achieving flexibility by empowering people through deferring to the front line, decentralized decision making and self managing teams. Fourth, and here is where things begin to get a bit dicey for me in terms of adopting Peters’ ideas to our religious structures, he talks about the need for clear lines of accountability and the absolute need to ruthlessly evaluate everyone and everything. Finally, for Peters, the thing that makes all of the freedom of decentralized authority and all the restraints of accountability and evaluation possible, he talks about the need for a clear and unifying vision that gives expression to a strong sense of identity.

I must admit that until this very last point I was right on with all of Peters’ principals for thriving on chaos. But I’m just not sure that anyone in oldline Protestantism has yet to creatively resolve the inherent contradiction between a strong identity and an affirmation of an outward reaching inclusiveness. Indeed, I am not the first person to realize that out of our best theological impulses for inclusiveness, oldline Protestantism has created for itself a full fledged identity crisis. Identity connotes and in fact requires boundaries. It affirms “common ground” and points to the corporate self. It is the focus of common purpose and intentionality. It is strongest in homogenous groups, and among oppressed populations. It is the resource of our inherited resources. Inclusiveness, in contrast, requires openness and the willingness to sacrifice self. It affirms differences and points to the other. It values the immediacy of relationships over the detachment of intentionality. It is the reservoir of resources yet to be discovered. It is strongest in socially and economically secure groups that are somewhat insulated from the pain of choices. So I would suggest to you that the most fundamental issue that oldline Protestantism faces in a world of diversity and choice is the tension between identity and inclusiveness. Or to put it another way: how do we maintain a sense of organizational “self” necessary for vitality and integrity on the one hand, while on the other hand maintaining our faithful affirmation of the value of inclusive relationships including our most precious relationship-that to the gospel. I wish you well in your engagement of the dilemma; and perhaps there will be future occasions when we can struggle with it together.