Team Spin Takes Yale Divinity School, Part One

Todd and I are spending much of this week attending a private Church Leadership and Growth seminar at Yale Divinity School, organized by my old postgraduate friend, Bruce Gordon, the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History and co-editor with me of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Calvinism. The attendees are eclectic: Yale students, pastors from the PCUSA and ECO, and a number of YDS professors.  Plus the Spin Team, pulling for the PCA and the OPC.  Aimee was meant to be with us but the seminar room is on the second floor and her conference contract contains that notorious Mariah Carey-esque rider about ‘not doing stairs.’

Bruce was inspired to organize the seminar by an article in Christianity Today written by one of those pragmatic, number-crunchers types who passes for an expert in church planting these days.  I think the email he sent to invite us all was sent at 2-34am one morning. Suffice it to say, the article had touched one of Bruce's raw nerves.

On Monday, the YDS Dean, Gregory Sterling, led a discussion focused on the decline in church attendance in the West over recent decades, followed by Todd and myself speaking about local church ministry and the use of media.   In the process, I think I probably became the first person in many generations to speak against women’s ordination on campus.  Or at least to say such and live to return the next day.   A tense moment, for sure, but one followed by trenchant yet civil discussion.   It was encouraging to know that even in this day of highly polarized and emotional identity politics, there are still venues where those of strong opinions can still engage in argument without attacking the person.

It was interesting that Dr. Sterling’s paper assumed that decline in numbers was necessarily a bad sign for the church.   I am not sure that this is the case.   If, for example, church is ceasing to be a place where attendance enhances social prestige and where coffee times are used to broker business deals, then numbers will decline; But it is hard to argue that such a decline is in itself a bad thing.  It might actually witness to the fact the relationship between church and society is changing because of the fidelity of the church to her message and mission, not because she is failing in some catastrophic way.  

When Todd spoke of his experience as a youth pastor in a megachurch, he told of the target quotas for attendance etc. which he had to achieve and that seemed to rest upon precisely the same assumption, that size is a gauge of fidelity, or perhaps (even worse) that size is fidelity.

It struck me as interesting that, for all of their material differences, both the megachurch world and the theological left seem rooted in a similar pragmatism when it comes to church and growth: Numerical growth is necessarily good and numerical decline is necessarily bad; And that the cause is the failure of the church to adapt her message or her methods to the questions, demands, and frameworks of the world around.

This is set to be a fascinating seminar week.  More reports to follow.  Now, if only Aimee 'did stairs'....