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June 21, 2004
The Future of
Christian Faith in America
David Yount and I serve together on the board of the Washington Theological Consortium, perhaps one of the two or three strongest such ecumenical clusters of seminaries in our nation today. I know him as wise and winsome friend, author and ecumenist extraordinaire. David is also a keen observer of broad trends in American religion. A Quaker, Yount has served on the board of directors of the National (Episcopal) Cathedral, and publishes this book with our ELCA house, Augsburg/Fortress. He has worked as a journalist, chairman of a seminary and college dean. His current day job is as a syndicated columnist with Scripps Howard. His reflections on religion are shared regularly in his column, Amazing Grace, read by an estimated twenty-five million subscribers. In his newest book, David shares a wealth of information and analysis about the present and possible future state of Christianity in America.
Neither pessimistic nor a Pollyanna, Yount acknowledges a fallout from faith, with a five-fold increase from 1950 to 1990 in the percentage of Americans who profess no religion. While the vast majority of U.S. citizens cling to some degree of belief, private faiths healthy public witness is weakened by a widespread secularist infection. Yount concludes that faith is still broad in America, but for the most part very shallow and fragile, often exerting little influence in how people live their lives. He repeats the well-documented reality that the older mainline churches are in decline while independent or loosely affiliated mega-churches with large facilities, parking lots and programs attract growing numbers of spiritual seekers.
In considering the state of ecumenism in America, Yount finds hope for the future, particularly in the training of clergy in contexts such as our Washington Theological Consortium. But out in congregations there remains a large measure of valuing autonomy even when actual differences from neighboring churches are more and more difficult to define. In the mile wide, inch deep world of faith, we cannot be certain whether the pull of church unity or the push of dissent is the stronger force in America. As a Lutheran, I cant avoid a small amount of pride when Quaker Yount tips his hat in admiration for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Americas leadership in the new approach toward greater Christian unity we refer to as full communion. Says the author, Whereas Martin Luther prompted the breakup of the Christian church about five centuries ago, his followers are leading the movement to rejoin the churches.
In a sobering assessment of how recent American isolationist tendencies and privatized religion may have contributed to September 11th and to growing numbers of people throughout the world who question our national values and authentic belief in God, Yount sounds a trumpet for a more public church. Since many in the ELCA these days echo a similar call, Davids pragmatic suggestions merit serious consideration. He salutes Loren Meads suggestion that the church must transfer ownership from clergy to laity, find new, creative and more cost-effective means of staffing parishes, and commit ourselves to growth, whatever growing might mean in a particular context. Above all, suggests Yount in this very readable, helpful and provocative book, the Church in America must return again and again to the basics, insisting on simplicity, humility, truth-telling, peace-making, and forgiving. All Christians, like the Quakers of old, must start quaking again, asking God the hard questions about what he requires me to do with my life.