Saturday, November 9, 2019

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Virtual Alternative to a Failing Church

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The halcyon illusion of America the Beautiful, on which God shed His Grace and spread brotherhood from sea to shining sea, has dissipated to reveal the ugly reality of a nation of diminishing faith that is hopelessly divided by “us versus them” politics.  The church that once provided America with altruistic ideals is failing, losing its members and its relevance.

Can you imagine an  alternative to the failing church in America?  What about a virtual alternative that could help restore America’s political legitimacy with the altruistic and universal values taught by Jesus?  The lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine provide an inspiration for an alternative to a church that has lost its moral compass and its relevance to democracy.

The church in its myriad variations has provided spiritual communities for Americans since the nation’s birth, but in recent years the church has failed.  It has atrophied and become increasingly irrelevant in matters of morality and politics. “One in five American adults were raised in a mainline church. But less than half of them continue to affiliate as adults.”

A viable alternative to the spiritual communities provided by the church is needed to prevent the loss of the unifying spirit and the standards of political legitimacy in America’s democracy..  Virtual spiritual communities could provide such an alternative for those whose journey of faith has taken them beyond what the church has to offer. 

Advances in technology make it possible for virtual spiritual communities to fill the vacuum left by the failing church.  Those who have left the church and are geographically isolated from like-minded souls could be part of a spiritual community linked by the internet, social media and teleconferencing, eliminating the need for actual meetings on a regular basis.

The traditional church is failing, but it will not disappear anytime soon.  For those who are no longer comfortable in a traditional church a virtual spiritual community is a viable option.  Websites and social media like Facebook provide an online means for believers to commune with those having common interests in faith, morality and politics.

The first Christians provide a precedent.  They were Jews who were disciples of Jesus and uncomfortable in synagogues since Jesus challenged Mosaic Law with his teachings on love over law.  Jesus never asserted his divinity, but the early church put belief in exclusivist doctrines on the divinity of Jesus over discipleship to make Christianity a popular religion.

Many have left the church because of its exclusivist doctrines of belief; but the church is not likely to risk its popularity to restore the primacy of discipleship over its exclusivist doctrines.  Discipleship is about following the universal teachings of Jesus as summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including those of other races and religions.  It’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Thomas Jefferson was a critic of the church who considered the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”  While Jefferson’s views were rejected by the church, ironically they are as relevant to our faith and politics today as they were 200 years ago.  They provide a universal moral foundation for a virtual alternative to today’s failing church.

For those seeking to be disciples in America’s democracy who are no longer comfortable in a traditional church and share the greatest commandment as a common word of faith and politics, this website at and my Facebook page may be suitable virtual alternatives to the church.  If so, welcome aboard, fellow travellers!


Imagine, By John Lennon:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky.

Imagine all the people
Living for today. 

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too.

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one.

Christine Emba cited two studies that indicated that “Millennials [aged 28-38] are leaving religion--especially Christianity--and they’re not going back.”  Emba, who is a Millennial, says “we still want relationships and transcendence,..despite how ambivalent we may feel about ancient liturgies...or pastors whose politics have taken a sharp turn MAGA-wards.”  Emba is worried that Millenials aren’t “building the relationships and communal support as the religious traditions they are leaving behind.” She concludes, “If we’re closing the church doors behind us, we’ll have to find somewhere else to tend to our spirits--and our hearts.” See

Michael Gerson believes that “rather than white evangelical Protestants (WEPs) shaping President Trump’s agenda in Christian ways, they have been reshaped into the image of Trump himself.”  And most white Christians in Mainline churches share the politics of WEPs. According to a recent poll, “nearly two-thirds of WEPs deny that Trump has damaged the dignity of his office. Well over half of this group is willing to deny a blindingly obvious, entirely irrefutable, manifestly clear reality because it is perceived as being critical of their leader. Forty-seven percent of WEPs say that Trump’s behavior makes no difference to their support. Thirty-one percent say there is almost nothing that Trump could do to forfeit their approval. This is preemptive permission for any violation of the moral law or the constitutional order. An extraordinary 99 percent of Republican WEPs oppose the impeachment and removal of the president.”  Gerson sees a younger generation of evangelicals who don’t support Trump, but concludes, “It is a source of cynicism and social disruption when an older generation betrays civilizing values in full sight of its children.” See

Ross Douthat acknowledges the decline of Christianity according to recent polls, but gives three reasons to question the overstated collapse of Christianity: First, Douthat thinks that “Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity.”  Second, Douthat thinks ”the waning of Christianity may be still as much a baby-boomer story as a millennial one.” (see Christine Emba, above)  And third, Douthat says, “There’s a strong case that any crisis facing Christian institutions is a more Catholic crisis than a Protestant one. While “in terms of raw numbers of adherents the biggest post-1960s collapse clearly belongs to Mainline Protestantism, with evangelical Christianity and Catholicism looking similarly stable.  But divide American Christianity along Catholic-Protestant lines, rather than into a Mainline-Evangelical-Catholic troika, and you can tell a different story — where evangelicalism gained at the Mainline churches’ expense, keeping the broader Protestant position constant, while Catholicism was saved from a Mainline-style decline only by Hispanic immigration. The collapse of Catholic mass attendance after the Second Vatican Council was more dramatic than any general Protestant development. And after a long period of immigrant-supported stabilization, in the current “aftershock” it’s mostly Catholic mass attendance that’s been falling, even as Protestant church attendance bobs up. So if you were inclined to extrapolate forward from American Christianity’s current situation, you might predict that the future of de-Christianization...will be shaped above all by what sort of Catholicism emerges from the church’s current controversies: from the agony of the sex-abuse scandal, from the revival of the liberal-Catholic program under Pope Francis and the embattlement of conservative Catholicism, from the theological and generational polarizations in the church.”  Douthat concludes that “evangelical Protestantism looks like a stronger alternative to secularism than the church of Joe Biden, Pope Francis and myself.”

Added to Douthat’s concerns about the declining public image of Catholicism in America was the denial of communion to Joe Biden at the Mass he attended on October 27 while campaigning in S.C.  See

Thomas Jefferson emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever devised by man” in his compilation of the teachings of Jesus in The Jefferson Bible, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989; and The Jesus Seminar credited Jefferson with”scrutinizing the gospels with the intent to separate the teachings of Jesus, the figure of history, from the encrustations of Christian doctrine. See The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say?, pp 2-3, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1993. 

Related commentary:

On the greatest commandment and love over law:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within
(7/20/19): Musings on Diversity in Democracy: Who Are Our Neighbors? 
(7/27/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Love Over Law and Social Justice
(8/31/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Politics of Christian Zionism
(9/21/19): An Afterword on Religion, Legitimacy and Politics from 2014-2019
(10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy
(10/12/19): Musings on Impeachment and Elections as Measures of Political Legitimacy
(10/26/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Discipleship in a Democracy

On the future of a church that has lost its moral compass and the end times:
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(9/24/16): The Evolution of Religion and Politics from Oppression to Freedom
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/15/17): Easter and the Christian Paradox
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17): Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/22/17): Hell No! 
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy?
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics
(11/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist: Has God Blessed Us or Damned Us?
(11/10/18): Musings on the End Times: God’s Rapture or Satan’s Rupture?
(12/1/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Mystical Logos
(12/15/18): Musings on the Great Commission and Religious and Political Tribalism
(12/22/18): Musings on Faith and Works: The Unity of All Believers and The Last Judgment
(2/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Hypocrisy of American Christianity
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America
(3/16/19): Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism
(3/23/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Thinking Outside the Box
(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(5/18/19): Outsiders Versus Insiders in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(5/25/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus
(6/8/19): The Moral Failure of the Church to Promote Altruism in Politics 
(6/15/19): Back to the Future: A 21st Century Pentecost for the Church
(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
(7/6/19): Musings on Democrats, Busing and Racism: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again
(7/13/19): Musings on Sovereignty and Conflicting Loyalties to God and Country 
(8/3/19): Musings on the Dismal Future of  the Church and Democracy in America
(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
(8/31/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Politics of Christian Zionism
(9/7/19): Musings on the Self-Destruction of Christianity and American Democracy
(9/14/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Chaos as a Prelude to a New Creation
(9/21/19): An Afterword on Religion, Legitimacy and Politics from 2014-2019
(10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy

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