Thirty five days ago I was in Dallas, Texas, sitting in a large hotel conference room with about 250 regional leaders of my denomination. The premier bureaucrat of our tradition was presenting a dismal statistical report that included data about the acceleration of annual membership losses.
A few years ago the rate of membership decline that had begun in the mid-1960s had reached over 35,000 members per year. Then the rate of decline doubled. In 2012 the losses will hit six figures for the first time. The premier bureaucrat stated that by 2016 the denomination will decline to about 1.5 million members. In 1983 the denomination had 3.1 million members.
I did the math. Projections five years ago predicted that by 2050 there would be just enough people left to turn out the lights at headquarters before walking away. The current accelerated pace of decline advances the year to 2030. I may live to see the end.
The more remarkable aspect of the premier bureaucrat's presentation was that he made no substantive comments about why people were leaving the denomination, nor did he refer to any significant efforts to remediate the situation.
This is a scenario that is being repeated across all American oldline-mainline Protestant denominations.
At this point the essential problem is conflict between liberal and conservative factions, and the liberals are winning the battles. In the case of my denomination, the liberals have won the war. The most important issues are theological, the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the nature of Christ, and the purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ. What is most visible in the conflict has to do with complex issues of human sexuality and the endorsement of alternate sexual lifestyles that the Bible defines as sin.
Claiming that the church shouldn't be shaped by culture, conservatives and their congregations are leaving and finding a home in a variety of rapidly growing evangelical communions. One regional official told me that congregations are leaving at a rate of five per week. Liberals are being left behind to deal with their imploding denominations.
The point: When you are part of a traditional institution, like a Christian church or denomination, allowing it to drift away from historic traditions is fatal.
A month before my trip to Dallas I received an email from the Boy Scouts of America inviting me to participate in a survey, stating in the message, "The Boy Scouts of America is in the process of a careful and deliberate review of our membership policy, as it relates to national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation."
So I opened up the instrument and began entering responses. But it wasn't a survey at all. Rather, it was as blatantly a dishonest push-poll as I have ever seen during a presidential campaign. Whoever designed the push-poll designed the responses to get the results that were announced last Thursday. The Boy Scouts of America will accept youth members who are openly gay, but not gay adults as leaders.
It's an incoherent change in membership policy.
First off, Scouting serves children. Acting on sexual orientation is an adult matter. It doesn't matter if a Scout is straight or gay. Now, have I had youngsters in Scout units I've served who later become part of the LGBT culture? Yes. Not one or two, but many. However, their sexual orientation, or emerging awareness of it, was almost entirely a life factor they acted on after their time in Scouting. Moreover, the expectation in Scouting programs that are coed is there will be no sexualized contact between the young women and men participants. While the debate about sexuality has been forced on the BSA, the Scouting program offers little or no content related to sexuality or practices.
But to use a scenario from the BSA push-poll, what happens when an openly gay Scout wants to advance to the rank of Eagle? All Eagle Scouts are charged to serve Scouting as adults, but not if you're gay? Yup, the change is incoherent. Of course the BSA will be pressured to finish what they started and accept gay leaders.
The change in policy is going to be costly. The Girl Scouts have already traveled down this path and, interestingly enough, the rate of decline in GSA members is the same as the decline in my denomination. At the very least the Boy Scouts of America will Balkanize into segments with different standards and values. At worst, the BSA will experience the same kind of membership attrition that both religious institutions and youth service organizations have experienced when they allowed culture to shape them, rather than being true to their purpose in shaping the culture.
The point: When you are part of a traditional institution, like a youth service organization, allowing a drift away from historic traditions is fatal.