What Will Christianity Be Like in the New Millennium?

As people grow tired of stodgy religious institutions that don't satisfy their personal and spiritual concerns, it's time to revise the notion of denominationally organized religion, argues Donald E. Miller. Instead, networks of independent churches are emerging in great numbers, many of them rapidly growing into mega-churches of several thousand members.A new book by Dr. Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, describes "a second reformation" that is transforming the way Christianity will be experienced in the next millennium.The book, "Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium" (University of California Press, 1997), takes a look at how "new paradigm churches" are flourishing while mainline Protestant churches -- Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran and other denominations -- have lost between 20 percent and 40 percent of their members over the last several decades."These churches are filled with gray heads, having failed to maintain the loyalty of those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s," Miller writes. And without this new generation of leadership, it is uncertain whether they can transform their worship and organizational style to attract a youthful and ongoing following.Miller contends that the mainline Protestant churches are modern in their belief system but do not culturally connect with young people today. "The people who are reinventing religion are starting from scratch -- they are leaving behind a lot of the freight of institutional religion. But they are capturing the spirit of religion in terms of religious experience," he says.Miller has observed the growth of independent and mega-church congregations of up to 10,000 members. While large, these congregations, in which lay people assume leadership positions, are closer to the needs of their members, he argues. The new movements are drawing not only from members of mainline Protestant churches, but also people who previously had no church affiliation.Drawing upon five years of research and hundreds of interviews, Miller takes the reader inside the new paradigm churches -- specifically Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship and Hope Chapel -- all of which are based in Southern California but have spread across the country. Miller's study, carried out with a $266,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, may be the most comprehensive qualitative analysis yet conducted of these nontraditional groups."I argue that not only are new paradigm churches doing a better job of responding to the needs of their clientele than are many mainline churches," Miller writes, "but -- more important -- they are successfully mediating the sacred, bringing God to people and conveying the self-transcending and life-changing core of all true religion."Members of these new churches meet in converted warehouses, rented auditoriums or other leased spaces. They worship through singing along with Christian rock musicians. They sit on folding chairs and dress as if they are going to the beach. The churches offer special interest groups aimed at re-knitting families -- such as men's and women's groups, marriage workshops and groups that deal with divorce. Outsiders are struck by the churches' warmth.Their members represent the mainstream of society -- middle-class baby boomers turned parents. Some come for a "healing" of the spirit as well as the physical body. Many, however, are simply looking for social and spiritual guidance in raising their families in the face of societal ills.According to Miller, movements like Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship and Hope Chapel represent a new breed of Christianity. They are creating a contemporary genre of worship music, restructuring the organizational character of institutional religion and democratizing access to the sacred by "radicalizing the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers." The new paradigm churches represent a new era of post-denominational Christianity in America. Indeed, they see themselves as reformers and agents of change."There are a lot of networks -- loosely affiliated independent churches -- but they don't try to create an overarching bureaucracy," Miller says.The new paradigm churches, whose members are avowed "born-again Christians," have their roots in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Miller says."In some ways, these churches replace the Jesus Movement for young people today, but these are more appealing to families and traditional values," he says. "They preach the old-fashioned gospel, but their music and form of worship are radically contemporary, and their mood is quite different from that of the typical evangelical and fundamentalist churches."Miller contends that physicality is a key part of the spiritual experience in the new paradigm churches. In his observations, for instance, he witnessed people visibly shaking while they experienced the "healing touch" of the Holy Spirit. This was particularly true at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, although "healing" was part of the worship experience in all three movements.In testimonial accounts, church members described experiencing such sensations as tingling, heat, sweating, electricity, heart palpitations and rapid breathing. The physiological reactions were matched by such emotions as joy, peacefulness, bliss and purging, especially of past memories.Members also claimed relief from physical symptoms such as headaches, abdominal pain, backaches and leg pains."The Christianity of the next millennium is going to recapture the physical dimension of touch -- of the warmth of a congregation of people caring for each other, all within a spiritual context of divine healing and of people connecting to a power beyond themselves," Miller says.Miller also believes the popularity of these movements reflects a cultural shift in the next millennium. "We are going to swing back to recognizing that the family is an extraordinarily important unit," he says. This is not a return to "family values" in a right-wing, militaristic sense; these churches are instead affirming the family through sports, camping trips, picnics and other activities to bring families together.In a postmodern world, one full of uncertainty and fragmentation, the new paradigm churches offer a coherent view of life with absolute values."I think there is a vacuum in which people are questing after some certainty in their lives, " Miller says. "These groups are claiming the possibility of a centered life which is based on Jesus and a belief in God-given, absolute values."For copies of "Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium," contact Robert Irwin of the University of California Press at: voice (510) 643-0682; fax (510) 643-7127.

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