Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Variable of the "Open Religious Market": Mainline Protestant Entitlement

Ever since I left the cocoon of my upbringing in the Pacific Northwest and witnessed a different life in the Midwest, I have wondered why things are the way they are. The why didn't really matter to how I was living my life--it was more of a curiosity. I commonly spoke out about my observations: this is different here! This comparison/contrast was no teleological exercise: I like information for its own sake, maybe for an occasional joke.

During seminary, my observations developed a nascent purpose. Does context matter? This question was driven by defensiveness. My surroundings living in St. Paul, Minnesota, implied a cultural/theological superiority for Northern European Midwesterners--my adopted culture. I admired my hosts' passion for their culture, finding their ethnography patterns, observations, thoughts, music, celebrations, and social patterns mostly compelling and joyful. These are my wife's roots--they are a part of me. However, my experience was different. Though my family became passionately involved in the Church for some years in my youth, only half of my life in my parents' home was connected to congregational life. Religious studies observers have known for years that religion does not have as strong a weave in the social fabric of the Pacific Northwest as other regions of the country. So what?

In posts from previous years, I cogitate on implications that somehow because the Pacific Northwest is less religious or less Christian, that somehow it is less moral. I am much less angered by this implication these days. I think people's morality will always be unjustly challenged regardless of where one resides or calls home--I don't have to be a Northwest native to be subject to that kind of scrutiny. I am still sorting out what my upbringing and context taught me and what its contribution to religious discourse can be. James Wellman's book offered me a key insight to understanding religion in the Pacific Northwest, maybe even to contemporary Mainline/Liberal Protestantism as a whole. Context matters. Though he didn't coin the phrase (I'm not sure who to credit) he does like to reference the Northwest as an "open religious market." This means there is no dominating or prevailing force on the religious ethos of that region. Name other regions of the country, or faith traditions in the United States, and you could probably name a corresponding tradition or region. Not so in the Northwest. Though some religious traditions may hold particular niches in the region--the religious market is open. So what?

In Wellman's study sample, Wellman distinguishes the relationship between Evangelical and Mainline/Liberals with the open religious market of the Pacific Northwest:

"Thus, while liberal leaders might complain that the [Pacific Northwest] had no tradition of church going and tended to discount organized religion per se, evangelical leaders would often comment with excitement about untapped opportunities in the region. The reality of the region's open religious market was not so much a problem but an opportunity for the evangelical churches (49)."

In the realm of social science, I wonder how I could measure "open religious market" and decipher more of what this variable means.

As a pastor and person of faith, I think about my relationship with the continuum of a religious market. I don't think I should make a value judgement of the religious market regardless of where the locality sits on the continuum. I make no value judgement on the concept of "open religious market." It just is. The question becomes, "How do I respond to this open religious market?" Therefore, I begin to question my adopted culture's sense of entitlement regarding people's commitments, both in the Northwest and Midwest. The Northwest is not the only place where church people complain about their congregational culture and its relationship with the surrounding community. For years serving in the Midwest, I have heard both clergy and lay people bemoan people's lack of commitment to the church and surrounding cultural deterioration. In my more courageous moments I ask, "Why should they commit? Why should people go to church around here (let alone this one)? What do they see that deserves commitment?" The cultural infrastructure of the Midwest has historically upheld congregational life. I believe this has produced a sense of entitlement for mainline liberal Protestant congregations--the consequences may play out differently in the Northwest than in other regions of the country. I was once angered by the morality challenges and judgments I heard in public discourse. Through Wellman's observations I have discovered that my frustration in 11 years of ordained ministry has not been rooted in morality questions, but in Mainline Protestant entitlement. Those congregations who question their own behavior and practices have a chance to break through and be faithful to their respective callings.

I have to let these reflections percolate for awhile.

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