Bracing for Change, With Faith

Gregory E. Sterling

When I interviewed in 2012 for the deanship of Yale Divinity School, Linda Lorimer, Secretary of the Yale Corporation at the time, asked me what most excited me about the possibility and what most concerned me.

The answer, I responded, was one and the same: Yale Divinity School has, in my estimation, been the leading school for mainline Protestant churches in the U.S.; I wanted to see it re-emerge as a leading force in the renewal of Christianity. This is what excited me. What worried me was that there was a great deal that I could not control: I could exercise some influence within the school but not on churches.

A couple of months after I was appointed dean, I sat bolt upright in bed one night around 2 a.m. with the realization that what was easy to say in an interview had now become a pressing challenge.

Troubling Math

I have spent a great deal of time in the first year and a half of my deanship talking with people about the current state of Christianity. The numbers are troubling. There has been a long-term decline in mainline Protestant churches. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell pointed out in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Schuster, 2010), from 1973-2008 a little more than half of the people who had grown up in mainline Protestant traditions left. Roman Catholics lost even more: 60 percent of whites who have grown up as Catholics in the U.S. have left their childhood faith.

Approximately half of the mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics who left the church of their youth went to evangelical churches, a boon for the evangelical movement in the 1970s and 80s. However, in the last two decades evangelicals have also begun to experience losses. Ask yourself how many people from your generation with whom you grew up are still practicing Christians. The answer will be disconcerting.

Where are people going? Not to church. Since the 1960s sociologists have used the category “nones” to refer to those who do not have a religious institutional allegiance. That trend has intensified dramatically, as the Pew Research Center and others have famously reported.

My wife and I routinely invite all first-year students at YDS to have dinner with us in our home. I have made it a practice to ask them why they believe their generation has found institutional forms of religion so problematic. Some answers are repeatedly offered. Many feel that Christianity has become too judgmental and formulaic. Alternatively, some think that we have lost our voice. In an effort to avoid being judgmental, we have failed to announce the Good News with conviction.

Or, we have made major mistakes that have undermined the church’s moral authority. We have been better sinners than saints.

Or, the world has become flat: Globalization has relativized faith.

Finally, many now turn to social media for networks rather than to established communities in both the political and religious realms.

These seismic shifts directly concern YDS in multiple ways. To begin with the obvious: Will our students have jobs? There are approximately 300,000 congregations in the U.S. However, if present trends continue, there will be significantly fewer in the future. Many churches are financially fragile. One major denomination reports 60 percent of its congregations are not financially viable. Bishops face tough decisions: Do they close failing congregations in an effort to strengthen others, or will the closures simply reduce the local Christian witness and lead to an increase of nones?

These realia mean that students preparing for the ministry must now think about a bi-vocational career. The loss of churches may be a factor in the steady erosion of applications to divinity schools or seminaries nationally: The numbers have fallen by 2 percent per annum in recent years.

Traditionally, denominations have supported the schools that train their clergy. However, the loss of members has resulted in a loss of revenue and a corresponding loss of support to seminaries.

An Entrepreneurial Future

All of these factors have led many to speak of a post-denominational world. While it may be premature to speak in these terms, what is certain is that Christianity will not be the same in the future. The most important thing that we can do at YDS is to prepare responsible and creative ministers and priests for the future. In my opening remarks to the students last fall I said: “Christianity is changing and changing rapidly. I do not know what it will look like in 30 years, but you will write its history. We want to train you to be responsible and entrepreneurial leaders.”

What are we doing to help prepare students for this? At YDS we continue to provide rigorous training in the classical theological disciplines and emphasize social justice and love of neighbor. Students will need to be the intellectual leaders of their communities – perhaps more so in the future as denominational structures weaken or students build communities outside of those structures. There is no substitute for well-honed minds that can lead.

We remain committed to making Christianity relevant to social issues. We will also experiment on a number of fronts. We will offer one-hour courses on leadership that provide case studies of proven success. We will bring individuals from a wide range of fields – the corporate world, legal careers, not-for-profit institutions, pastorates, political fields – to campus for weekend courses. They will reflect on challenges they have met. Students need models of success in their field.

We will use our summer sessions to concentrate on the renewal of churches, with courses that feature successful case studies, new liturgies, or specialized ministries.

We will emphasize youth in a way that we have not in the past. One reason why mainlines lost so many younger people is that too little emphasis was placed on youth.

We will continue to expand the diversity of our students, both from underrepresented groups in the U.S. and students from abroad. We cannot think of Christianity monolithically or regionally. As dean I have a dream to place potentially every M.Div. student in a second internship – an internship that is international. Why? It would change the way that students think about Christianity.

Similarly, we will expand our courses in other religions. Christians comprise 32 percent of the world’s population, Muslims 22 percent, Hindus 15 percent, Buddhists 7 percent. We need to prepare students to address interfaith marriages and engage in interfaith dialogues. Not only will denominational lines become more blurred; so will religious lines.

Everlasting Church

How did I go back to sleep when I awoke so abruptly that spring night in 2012? I came to the realization that we do not have to do this alone. In Everlasting Man, published in 1925, G.K. Chesterton reminded us that Christianity has been on the verge of disappearance several times. “It is so true,” he wrote, “that three or four times at least in the history of Christendom the whole soul seemed to have gone out of Christianity; and almost every man in his heart expected its end.” But it did not disappear. “When Christianity rose again suddenly and threw them, it was almost as unexpected as Christ rising from the dead.”

Christianity is changing. Yet it is not in danger of disappearing. It may be recreated in new and surprising ways, but it will not disappear. We should remember the words of the Hebrew prophet who in Babylonian exile – where many thought Israel would disappear – said:

For just as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and will not return there until they have drenched the earth,

causing it to bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so will be my word that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

until it has accomplished that which I intended,

and has succeeded in that for which I sent it.

(Isa 55:10-11)

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School & Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament.