From 'Liberal' Pews, a Rising Thirst for Personal Moral Code
G. Jeffrey MacDonald Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Mainline Protestant congregations, known for emphasizing the social-justice and global-equity dimensions of the Gospel, are increasingly making space for airing parishioners' day-to-day moral dilemmas, which they used to leave largely between an individual and God.
Often, this thirst for a personal code of conduct is being satisfied among lay members themselves, who gather in small groups in homes, cafes, and church basements to talk over daily moral challenges.
What's new is that it's appearing in "blue state," liberal- leaning churches, which appear to be taking a page from the playbook of conservative megachurches that have long used small groups to reinforce Christian morality - and to help members feel connected and satisfied.
Guidance in private moral matters helps keep the spirit alive, says Jim Adams of the Center for Progressive Christianity in Cambridge, Mass. "I think people want it and need it," he says. "Progressive churches that are thriving do pay as much attention to the personal as they do to the social and the political.... That's where people get what they need to sustain their lives."
When Bob Potter joined St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan, little did he expect that he would soon be advising fellow members how to live their lives. But when a man in his church discussion group was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Mr. Potter and five others in the group asserted a robust moral guidance, urging him to reconcile with every member of his family who had become estranged since learning he was gay.
"We encouraged that, and to a certain extent, we bridged the gap" by phoning reluctant family members and encouraging meetings, he says.
Such daring encounters with one another's moral struggles have become remarkably regular at "St. Bart's," a progressive congregation whose average Sunday attendance has leapt from 100 to 1,200 since the early 1990s. Small groups that discuss personal dilemmas deserve much of the credit, according to Rector William Tully.
Other churches reversing years of decline say the same is true for them as well.
"This modern resurgence of interest [in small groups] in the past 15 years is authentically a new thing," says Ian Evison, director of research at the Alban Institute, a think tank for mainline American Christianity in Herndon, Va. "People found themselves with all these self-help groups, and it tended to create a culture for how things are dealt with."
In this new wave, groups of six to 12 members are convening - officially, at least - to pray, watch films, do crafts, or simply eat and chat without any obligation to say much at all. Yet under these nonthreatening auspices, church-based groups - especially in Northern states, - are coming to offer something quite profound in the eyes of church watchers. They report a subtle re-creation of safe spaces and sources of guidance that had gradually become the domain of workplace spirituality teams and 12-step recovery groups, which often rent space from churches.
Churchgoers are increasingly willing to go to their peers in the pews for guidance, says Mr. Evison, in part because few want to rely on clergy for one-on-one counseling in an era charged with sexual- abuse scandals.
Another reason has to do with urban lifestyles that include fewer "occasions for natural friendships" among adults who miss the blunt advice given in childhood and college days, according to Mr. Adams.
Whatever the causes, some hope they've found an effective way to stem decades of declining numbers in mainline churches.
Highly progressive and politically minded Unitarian Universalists, for instance, have helped small groups take root in hundreds of congregations across the denomination. Meanwhile, their denomination has been adding members over the past 10 years at a pace unseen elsewhere in progressive religion. …