Some conservative Episcopalians like to trumpet the fact that some traditionalist parishes have high Sunday attendance. They claim that orthodox preaching and leadership pack 'em in, whereas (they claim) "revisionist" parishes often have trouble even getting people in the door. Well, here's an interesting data point: Despite the Roman Catholic church's overwhelmingly-orthodox leadership, and even before the clergy sex-abuse scandals, an Associated Press article reports that the church's major U.S. dioceses have been seeing only about 20% Sunday attendance, at best. And Europe is probably worse by far. The attendance percentage at my own, very-orthodox parish hasn't been much better that that of the RCs in the past dozen years. When I eyeballed the charts published by the national church, it appears the best attendance percentage we had between 1994 and 2004 was right around 28%. I checked a few other parishes in town, both orthodox and liberal; their numbers tell similar stories.
People go to church for lots of different reasons, but these attendance data remind us that there's an elephant in the room: Educated people have plenty of reason to be skeptical of the claims that traditionalists insist on making; from a purely-marketing perspective, this damages the church's credibility as a bringer of truth. Over the centuries, Jesus's good news has become covered with doctrinal mold that needs to be stripped away so that people can be attracted again by the basics that he taught.
There's Ample Reason Not to Take Traditionalist Doctrines Seriously — and That Damages the Church's Credibility
I'm convinced that as the years go by, more and more people just don't take seriously what traditionalists claim are the key doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and that this damages the church's credibility in other areas. If these folks don't have some other reason to want to go to church, they see little or no point in going there on Sunday morning, so they feel free to attend the Little Church of St. Starbucks (or St. Mattress) instead.
These folks may pay lip service to the doctrines of orthodoxy. When they think about these doctrines at all, they may hope they're true. But deep down, I suspect, an awful lot of them metaphorically raise their eyebrows when traditionalist Christians say some of the things that they do, such as:
• The Trinity: Traditionalist Christians claim that God consists of three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — united in being as one Godhead. I'm sure more than a few Christians have wondered: How can these traditionalists be so certain God consists of exactly three Persons? Why not four, or two? Why not two thousand?
• Human depravity in a broken world: Some traditionalist Christians claim that we humans live in a "broken" world, and that by our very nature, we are wretchedly depraved, abjectly and utterly so. My guess is that a lot of people instinctively feel very differently than this, and not without reason.
If we concentrate on looking for suffering and evil in the world, then sure, we're going to see plenty of both. That's not to excuse nor to justify the existence of either suffering or evil; there are good and sufficient reasons, in the secular realm alone, why it makes sense for us to work to combat both.
But neither can we neglect the historical big picture — or, more accurately, the movie. And what a movie it is! For millions of years, God's marvelous creatures, including those we call humans, have been patiently and persistently improving our little corner of Creation. Our path hasn't been one of uniform progress by any means. We regularly have setbacks, many of them self-inflicted, some of them horrendous. Even so, for millennia, we've slowly been building a "better" world by facing the facts, taking care of our families, and collaborating with our neighbors. (Other animals do much of that sort of thing too, in case we've forgotten.)
If we have any doubt that our world today is better than that of the past, we need only consider Gregg Easterbrook's thought experiment to realize that few if any of us would ever willingly trade place with a random ancestor of 10,000 years ago, or even 100 years ago.
Even more impressive, all this progress has come:
- in the teeth of the forces of disorder, epitomized by the Second Law of Thermodynamics;
- by humanity's learning as we go, often painfully, and sharing our learning with each other, utilizing our gifts of memory, reason, and skill;
- by our taking inspiration (dare I say it) ... from where?
That doesn't strike me as a broken world at all, but as an amazingly wonderful one. And this "movie" gives us some insight into our alleged depravity. The human race has been reasonably successful in its time on the planet. Maybe we're not so depraved after all: obviously, we've been doing something right.
To be sure, people can do horrendous things. But we don't really understand why we do what we do, for good or ill. We do know that our minds are affected by a complex and ever-shifting mishmash of factors: genetics; physiology; nutrition; drugs; blood- and brain chemistry; education; past experience; and countless other factors. It's an understatement to say that we've barely scratched the surface of how these factors interact to influence what we think and do. I think there's a strong case to be made that, at any given moment, we all try to do what we think, at that moment, is the "right" thing. Being human, however, we're very limited in our ability to process information and to keep everything in mind that we should. As a result, all too often we miss the mark concerning what we should be doing, and sometimes grievously so. But that's a very different thing from depravity.
I'm sure I'll be accused of denying the existence of sin, of personal responsibility, of free will, etc. In response, I merely note that the Greek word hamartia, used in the New Testament to mean "sin," is said to refer, in Homeric Greek, to an archer or spear-thrower who has missed his mark, and who — if he survives his mistake — needs to work on correcting his error next time (which in turn leads us down the rabbit trail to metanoia, a change of mind and heart, translated as "repentance").
• The Incarnation and Atonement: Traditionalist Christians claim that humanity was able to be brought to "salvation" only by the Creator of the universe taking human form and submitting himself to gruesome torture and a protracted execution to atone for man's depravity. There are plenty of possible reasons why some churchgoers likely aren't really convinced of these particular doctrines. These claims are such doozies, it's hard to know where to start.
Let's start with the notion of "salvation." We're not without reason to hope that some kind of potentially-blissful afterlife exists. Making our bets that way is not an irrational life strategy. But there's zero reliable evidence about what happens to us after we die. And there can be no dispute that in this life, humanity hasn't come anywhere close to achieving any kind of salvation through perfecting itself, even assuming arguendo that this were possible. (As noted above, it's likewise indisputable that we're on a generally-upward, albeit difficult, path.) So it is indeed irrational to insist categorically that our religious beliefs absolutely must be grounded on a belief in a life to come.
Moving on to the Incarnation and the Atonement: We can't categorically rule out that these doctrines are true. But then neither do we have any rational basis for thinking they are. For example: The unnamed author of the Gospel of John claimed that the Logos was God, and that the Logos became flesh in the person of Jesus. But we have no basis for concluding the author knew what he was talking about; there's nothing to make us think he had access to any particularly-reliable "inside information." Another example: Many of the Hebrew Scriptures predicted the imminent coming of Mashiach — often rendered as Messiah or, in Greek, Christos — an anointed warrior-king (which is not at all the same thing as God becoming man). Unfortunately, those predictions demonstrably never came true. Ditto with the New Testament predictions of Jesus's imminent return; they never came true either, to the chagrin of the later New Testament authors and church fathers. (Cf. Deut. 18.21-22.)
Trying to defend their doctrines, apologists for traditionalist Christianity point to phenomena such as the empty tomb, the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus, and (especially) the willingness of early Christians to die for their beliefs. But as I've written about elsewhere on this blog, there are other, simpler, more plasible explanations for all those phenomena; in particular, people have been , and still are, willing to die for questionable beliefs for a long, long time.
Unsupported, Ipse-Dixit Theological Claims Just Don't Cut It Any More
When it comes to assertions about God, his nature, his works, and his will, it's not apparent that we should rely blindly on the raw, ipse-dixit say-so of the early Christians, any more than we would rely on the assertions of the early Mormons or the early Muslims — or for that matter, the agnostics and the atheists. (Neither can we blindly rely on our own say-so either, which is a discussion for another time.) We have no reason to think we're any more intelligent than the early Christians were. They did the best they could to explain the phenomena they experienced. We should be grateful to them for their faithfulness and for helping to transmit the good news down the generations. But we shouldn't assume that they somehow knew more than we do.
If someone chooses to believe the fantastic doctrinal claims of traditionalist Christianity, there's no harm done, at least not without more. But the brute fact is, we have just as much reason to believe that giant Siamese cats inhabit the Alpha Centauri star system and are governed by a hereditary Queen Cat.
Conclusion: We Need to Articulate More-Persuasive Reasons to Follow Jesus
Results matter. This just as true in Christian evangelization as in any other marketing mission. It's been said that Christianity is never more than one generation away from extinction. If church attendance drops, we can't just wring our hands; we need to own up to it and do something about it.
It's going to be tough to do something about it. We followers of Jesus are confronted by a variety of challenges: An in-your-face secular culture. An expanding Islam. Our own children, even: We train them to be critical thinkers, and then unsurprisingly they question and even reject doctrines that our parents took for granted. (Often, our children and others simply vote with their feet, quietly slipping out the door, and not raising their own children in any kind of faith.)
If old "marketing techniques" are not as effective in evangelization as they once were, we need to face that fact and figure out what we should do differently. In marketing terms, one of the things we can do about it is to rethink our "messaging." Traditionalist messaging turns off a lot of people. We need to face that fact.
Jesus's core message — the Great Commandment, the Summary of the Law, and the importance of metanoia, roughly translated as "repentance" but more accurately as a change of mind and heart — remains as vital as ever. To deal with the marketing-type challenges we face, we need to return to that message. If we do, we can articulate reasons to follow Jesus that have a better chance of being accepted by, and persuasive to, today's audience.
We don't have the luxury of using messaging that we like, and then being indifferent to whether our target audience "gets it." That's not the kind of servant leadership that the Teacher commanded us to show.
 For nearly 30 years the Roman church has had indisputably-orthodox leadership. John Paul II, elected in 1978, was about as conservative as you can get. He appointed a huge proportion of today's cardinals and bishops in the church, and was noted for choosing men who shared his conservative views. It's true that for a number of years, local priests often tended to be more liberal than their JP2-appointed bishops. But over time, older priests retired and seminaries began to be run by more-conservative leaders. While Catholic seminary attendance has likewise been dropping, it's been reported that those men who do attend have tended, at least theologically, to fit more in the mold of their orthodox superiors. Presumably, this has led over time to the front lines of the church being manned by more conservative priests.