Brian Heron moves from place to place working himself out of a job. He’s a peculiar expert; taking the helm at a struggling congregation and transitioning it into something stable, though that often means merging or closing a church. He recently spent six years with a congregation near Portland that successfully merged with a growing United Church of Christ and turned their remaining real estate into a homeless shelter and community garden. Now Brian’s assigned to a shrinking church in Grant’s Pass. Since more than half of all Presbyterians are over age 65, and sixty percent of Presbyterian churches will close in the next ten years, Brian’s role a work-out man is a necessary gig.
The growth of religion in this country, and worldwide, reflects the increased polarization of our economic, social, and political lives. Religions with strict doctrines: Mormons, Fundamental Christians, Muslims, even Atheists, are on the upswing. But traditional Protestants, Reformed Jews, and Buddhists are declining. “The main stream religions are nuanced. People who align with ambiguity can do that without a church.”
People once described as liberal Christian’s now back off the term ‘religion’. “There’s a shift taking place from religion to faith and spirituality. Take marriage. I haven’t performed a wedding in a church since the 1990’s. People don’t want to be married within church walls; they want to be married outdoors or in a place meaningful to them.”
A few years ago Brian made a bicycle pilgrimage from Rome To Konya Turkey, where the poet Rumi is buried. The Rome to Rumi route took Brian from the seat of traditional religion to the heart of mysticism, a journey that reflected humanity’s move from a belief system to an experiential system. Brian’s written a book about his experience, which he hopes to use as the centerpiece for retreats and conferences about pilgrimages. “I have done my own work. Now its time for me to lead others.”
Brian thinks the world is at an awkward time. Part of his congregation, the older people, wants the ‘truth’, while others want to embrace ambiguity. “I want to articulate what we share in community by listening to the community rather than delivering what we believe from a position of authority. I listen first and then articulate from what I hear.”
In order to put some structure to the ambiguity, Brain’s identified what he considers five essential beliefs within the Presbyterian Church. They are far from commandments and don’t dictate behavior. Rather, they outline commonalities while allowing for personal interpretation.
First, God is sovereign. Theology built the idea of God around an omnipotent being. This is dropping away. God may be spiritual energy. In the 1960’s, Death of God theories flourished in response to the Holocaust. How could God be both all powerful and all loving? Actions proved otherwise. The language of the omnipotent God fell away in seminaries, but it never trickled down to congregations. “We would be in a better, more honest, place today if we had followed the Death of God idea, but congregations didn’t want to hear it.”
Third, we believe The Bible is the ultimate criterion for hearing God’s voice. Other writings can be inspired, but The Bible is the primary source.
Fourth we are a priesthood of believers. This goes directly to the Reformation idea that we are all priests. What is happening now, with people developing their own faith perspectives, is really the logical evolution of Martin Luther’s ideas.
Finally, we are reformed and are always reforming. We don’t believe that we have the ‘right’ interpretation, but will continue to search for deeper truth.
“I want to believe that people have a basic yearning for a deeper connection with the soul of the world. At the same time, I’ve met people who don’t have that yearning. Sometimes I open that spark in others.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“We’re living out and embodying our ideals. People are taking charge of their lives. It’s the breakdown of authority. Doctors, pastors, we are jumping off points for personal discovery. There was this idea that ‘right preaching’ is the word of God. It used to be that you believed before understanding. Now, we have to understand to believe. We are taking democracy to another level. We are moving to a post-religion, post-authoritarian time. The Internet equalizes the playing field. We are taking over the means of our lives.
“As a pastor with aging populations, thirty to fifty percent want me to articulate the faith for them. I give them all the benefit of my belief and training. But when I say ‘Amen’ they need to figure out how to apply it to themselves.”