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MEANINGFUL LIFE to the growing and changing needs of the people…to remain relevant we might also have to agree to disagree… and be willing to tell the gospel story – unashamedly.” For some emerging adults, the abandonment of church because it does not fulfill individual needs is not a satisfying answer to the problem. “Maybe instead of asking questions about what the church can do for us, we begin to ask the question of ‘What can I bring to the church. What I can do to help strengthen the church. What gifts and graces do I have that would make Church better for those like me,’” said seminary student Austin Rinehart ’13. “I believe our consumerist society has led to a change in the fundamental question people are asking the church,” continued Rinehart. “Instead of waiting to be transformed by the church we should be the ones doing the transformation.” Instead of avoiding the hard questions, Rinehart explains that he and his peers desire a church “committed to social justice, radical hospitality to strangers, and an unrelenting belief that God is ever-committed and ever-loving towards all His people regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic status, belief, or theology.” Simply put, Rinehart just wants to belong to a church of grace and passion. “I want to be a member among thousands, never wavering from the mission [of Christ] and always looking forward, never back,” said Rinehart. “I think everyone out there could be committed to something like that.” 

ask the expert With the downward generational shift in traditional church attendance, what does the future hold for mainline denominations in America? In terms of the so-called “mainline denominations,” probably two things:  1) the media will run many pieces bemoaning a shift from an imagined or idealized status quo, and 2) professionals in those denominations will try out new tactics—social programming, ad campaigns, liturgical innovations—for reaching and retaining young people.  For my work, the first response is the most interesting.   In my class this summer for the BA program of the Chicago Police Department, one of the themes was nostalgia, the power of creating and clinging to a vision of a past when things were better, more pure.  This notion of a “downward generational shift” is one of the things I hear repeatedly cited as a motivation by some of the extremist groups I study.  So one result of buzz about this supposed decline in church attendance is that folks are quick to correlate it with a decline in morals, to map it onto visions of America’s decline, and to respond with religious thought and practice explicitly framed as a return to what used to be. The dynamic that interests me as a scholar is how, for small communities insisting on their own ideological purity, the idea that society used to be perfect and has been deteriorated (often by some scapegoat group: Jews, homosexuals, the government, etc.) can lead to acts of violence. Dr. Spencer Dew is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Centenary College.

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Encircle Fall 2013