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The Demand for Choices
By: Lyle E. Schaller

What was the change that had the greatest impact on the cultural, political, religious, economic, and social scene on this planet during the last quarter of the 20th century?

Back in 2000, the late Peter Drucker concluded that, for the first time in history, a substantial and growing proportion of the world's population are now convinced they do have choices. Instead of inheriting a future created by when, where, and to whom they were born, a rapidly growing number of people now are able to design their own future!

That is a radical change from the 1930s, when the vast majority of the adults on this planet were confronted with one or both of two choices: "Take it or leave it" and Work or go hungry."

One consequence in the United States has been an expansion in the role of government and an increase in the governmental resources (some of it by borrowing money) required to broaden the range of choices available to Americans in healthcare services, education, employment, accumulating wealth, recreation, entertainment, communication, enjoying their retirement years, highway travel, military service, or while unemployed.

At this point in the discussion, it must be noted this increase in choices for residents of the United States, including most "undocumented" immigrants, has brought more positive consequences than negative outcomes. In other places on this planet, however, the outcomes include an increase in violence and the nurturing of terrorism. One consequence has been a quadrupling in the number of self-governing nations since 1945, but another consequence has been an increase in the number of civil wars and the slaughter of innocent civilians.

An interesting debate could be organized over which change has turned out to be the most significant in how Americans communicate with friends and relatives who live beyond walking distance of one another. The title for that debate could be, "Why is the United States Postal Service experiencing a financial deficit?"

Another consequence is the product of that huge increase in the number and variety of choices under that broad umbrella of entertainment and recreation. What happened to the county fair of the 1930s? Do you recall the traveling circuses that made three-day stops all across small town America? Do you remember when major league baseball consisted of only 16 teams?

The American Religious Scene
If we shift the focus to the consequences of this growing demand for an increase in the number and variety of attractive choices, it is easy to identify several, each one of which belongs among the top three, depending on your values system.

1. While it has yet to reach the halfway point in terms of current application, one with major symbolic importance has been the gradual emergence of a national marketplace, to replace the old regional and denominational inventory, when the time comes to look for a successor to the departure of the current pastor. The number of times that search crosses denominational boundaries also is increasing.

2. The most widespread consequence among Christian congregations in America has been the increase in the level of competition for future constituents.

3. At this point, many readers may interrupt, "Dummy! You've missed the No. 1 demand for choices! The glass ceiling for women has been raised." Women now are being chosen to serve as pastors, as denominational executives, as seminary professors, governors, senators, chief executive officers, physicians, lawyers, and engineers and in scores of other roles that were not open to them as recently as the 1950s.

4. With rare exceptions, for most of the history of organized Christianity in western Europe, Christians accepted and affirmed the need for external authority. The concept of an "independent Christian congregation" and the doctrine of original sin were accepted as incompatible. Every congregation composed of sinful human beings required being subject to external authority. One of the two most familiar models affirmed the role of the Pope in Rome as filling that need. The other European model called for the ruler of that country to be the No. 1 external authority, a responsibility defined and accepted by King Henry VIII in 1534.

That growing demand for choices has generated several responses in America. The two most rapidly growing responses to new choices on this issue of external authority are (1) the emergence of thousands of "independent" congregations that are organized around the "four self principle" of self-governing, self-funding, self-expressing, and self-propagating and (2) the emergence of self-identified "Associations of Autonomous Congregations."

5. One of the most interesting responses to this growing demand for choices is among those adults who felt called by God to the Christian ministry, rejected that call, enjoyed a successful career in another vocation (including for some a career as a homemaker), and later in life accepted that call as a second vocation. The passage of time once reduced an American's list of choices. Today, the passage of time often enlarges that array of choices.

6. From a parish pastor's perspective, the most significant consequence of this increase in choices and the resulting increase in the number of adults seeking to serve God as a parish pastor is a combination of (a) a decrease in the number of Protestant congregations able to finance a compensation package that includes cash salary, housing, utilities, pension, and health insurance, plus full reimbursement for travel and for continuing education experiences, (b) the increase in the number of retired ministers who are physically and mentally healthy and also bring decades of relevant experience who seek a part-time role as an associate minister, and (c) the surplus of fully credentialed ministers who seek a full-time role in the parish ministry.

7. One of the most widely studied trends focuses on Americans born, baptized, confirmed, and, for many, married, in the Roman Catholic Church in America. Their demand for choices later in life led them to reject the concept of inherited institutional loyalties and to switch their church affiliation to a Protestant congregation, often to a self-governing independent church.

8. Perhaps the most widely overlooked response to the growing demand for choices by American Christians is one response to Protestant-Catholic marriages. Back in the 1950s, about three or four out of every five couples in an interfaith marriage chose the Roman Catholic Church. The most interesting response in a culture that now places a high value on both egalitarianism has been the addition of a "both-and" choice to the list of options. Today, that couple may choose a Protestant congregation with a meeting place next to a Roman Catholic Church. The schedule may call for 5 p.m. Saturday or Sunday morning worship, but it enables one spouse to participate in Mass at the Catholic parish at the same hour the other spouse walks a few yards to worship with a Protestant congregation.

9. Many readers may agree the No. 1 consequence of this growing demand for choices surfaces following the move of that churchgoing family or individual Christian individual to a new place of residence. Fifty years ago, the common choice was, "The congregation of my denominational heritage that meets for the corporate worship of God closest to where I will be living."

Today, that right to choice is expressed following a change in the place of residence by building a list of 5-15 potential new church homes. That response has motivated a growing number of pastors to explain, "The first reference point in designing our worship experience for each Sunday morning is the liturgical year. The second variable is to design a response to the question of what would motivate a first-time visitor to return next week?"

While it may not rank first in importance, the most highly visible response to this growing demand for choices has been the erosion of the definition of the geographically defined parish. As the journey from home to work has lengthened, if measured by either minutes or miles, so has the journey from home to church.

10. From a pastor's perspective, one of the most significant consequences is the response by parishioners to the arrival and installation of a successor to the departure of a highly competent and widely appreciated long-tenured pastor. The response to the successor may be described as "Great!" or "A miracle!" or "As time for me to start shopping for a new church home." Responses such as "loyalty" or "patience" or "obligation" are being replaced by this right to choose.

11. While rarely discussed in these terms, that growing demand for relevant and meaningful choices has made the vast majority of Protestant buildings functionally obsolete. The common expression of the design for a new meeting place for a Protestant congregation in 1960 was, "We need a room designed for the corporate worship of God, a fellowship hall and classrooms, plus offices, restrooms, corridors, and storage space." Today, that demand has been expanded to include "one room for traditional worship, another room that could house a contemporary worship experience, plus a third room that is designed for multimedia worship experiences and, perhaps, also serve as a fellowship hall or a dining room."

12. One of the most widely discussed demands for choices today is in the choice of a marriage partner. One highly controversial expression of that growing demand is for legal approval of same-sex marriages. This demand is for a man or a woman to have the legal right to choose a marriage partner of the same gender.

Concurrently, the number of opposite sex marriages in the United States has been declining. Comparable data are available since 1960. The number of marriages peaked at 10.9 per 1,000 population in 1972, dropped gradually to 10.0 per 1,000 population in 1986, and has been 7.3 to 7.8 per 1,000 in recent years.

The old sequence of courtship, marriage, and parenthood has been replaced by the freedom to choose any one of several options in adulthood, including a growing number of Americans born after 1965 who choose parenthood but reject marriage.

How many households are required to produce an average attendance at weekend worship of 150? A lot more than the number required when you were a baby!

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and consultant.

Copyright 2010 by Lyle E. Schaller

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