By Frederick W. Schmidt
As sociologist Robert Wuthnow observes, the early '60s continued the emphasis of the '50s on a spirituality of dwelling and, therefore, church building. But the trends at work in the larger society also gave birth to a spirituality of seeking that had little use for the church at all. Like others, Wuthnow chronicles the factors that undermined the authority of religious leaders and the communities that they represented, including the Vietnam War, the resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, and the Watergate Scandal.
Wuthnow and others have less to say about the kind of church that was left after the "rock and roll" of the '60s had come and gone. One way of characterizing the result is to describe it as the decade that gave birth to The Issue-Driven Church: the church that sees itself as the vanguard of social change and transformation—a church that lives from agenda to agenda, legislating policy, and issuing position papers.
It is not the model for doing church that necessarily dominates the local parish in mainline churches. In many ways The Issue-Driven Church thrives at the denominational level, among judicatories, within church agencies, and Conventions, Conferences, and Synods. But local parishes are often drawn into the orbit of The Issue-Driven Church. And even when they aren't, local congregations are forced to do their work in an environment that is often shaped by The Issue-Driven approach to doing church.
That's part of the reason that an increasing number of churches are omitting any public indication that they are affiliated with a denomination. They simply can't pay the price of owning an association that drives people away before they ever get acquainted with the community.
Now none of this is to say that the church doesn't need to address issues. Anyone who has read the prophet Micah or heard the story of Jesus won't think for a moment that you can take the Gospel seriously without finding yourself at odds with the world around you. The Christian life is not about hiding out with your rosary waiting for comforting moments of enlightenment while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Speaking out against racism and sexism, the exploitation of the helpless—there's a long list of issues that show up in what might be considered the contemporary business of doing justice and loving mercy. But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.