I’ve been to the Corner House, though not for a ministry event. Frankly, the decision is hardly surprising; though probably not for the official reasons, granted that money probably is a factor. The reality of the matter is that mainline churches are getting pummeled, as recent reports indicate across-the-board for American Christianity. As the mainliners grow more and more theologically and politically liberal (and the Corner House was unquestionably a left-leaning haven), there is less and less a need for anyone to go; why go to church when you can be political? The only revival going on these days is of the neo-American Civic variety.
College students, who were targeted and exploited by shady registration drives and shadier 527s in the fall, and are decreasingly interested in traditional religious practice, are responding in kind. Basic economics: no demand, decreasing supply, decreasing capital, decreased in-house morale, decreased influence, irrelevance. May as well close up shop before they close it for you. On the other end of the spectrum, we see something similar: while the mainliners generally look like the College Democrats, the evangelical campus ministries generally look like your local mega-church or emerging whatever. All both are is a microcosm of what they ultimately want: donor-voters and tithing church goers.
Notice neither is necessarily interested in furthering the cause of Christ, reconciliation and personal renewal. Sometimes taking care of the in-house stuff gets to be so messy that actual ministry gets lost in the mess. And I get that, it’s not easy taking care of infrastructure stuff in parachurch life. The churches tend to secretly despise the fact that you’re competition; the supporters want their newsletters and students need your time and attention.
(And then there’s the self-employment tax, which I understand all to well, being that I just wrapped up my last annual masochism session with the IRS about 12 hours ago. Harder, hit me harder! I digress.)
It’s an uneasy existence, one that I have enjoyed for the past eight years. But the reality of the matter is that away from traditional constructs and vestiges, it’s a razor-thin margin of error before a ministry loses its moorings and becomes a social club or a voting bloc, worse yet, irrelevant or worst of all, like the Corner House; that is, extinct. It’s not like theological or political liberalism is the enemy here; I don’t intend for this to be misconstrued as some conservative blather about how everything is going to hell. The point here is only that when you begin to move away from a relatively independent identity and begin to reflect another, more established system, the slide toward mediocrity and irrelevance is tough to reverse.
In business, Circuit City wanted to be Best Buy and ended up imploding in the process. Starbucks and Krispy Kreme expanded too aggressively and are at a bottom line crossroads. In church circles, the attempts of smaller churches to grow in the same fashion as megachurches has left them either in financial trouble or assimilated into those megachurches, as the megachurch era mutates and gives way to the insipid McChurch era. Don’t think the mentalities aren’t somehow unrelated. Our government has passed two trillion dollar bailouts, is looking at at least two more, and has authorized the Federal Reserve to print billions of dollars; what do you think is going to happen? None of these decisions are governed by any sense of principle, only by the need to grow, expand influence, control and dominate. Church is not in the business of business and ought not behave in such a way.
If religion is whatever happens to be the focus of a person’s ultimate concern, and I believe that Tillich was right to define it this way, then what failing campus ministries–amongst the others heretofore mentioned–reflect is not the suffering Christ, but those ultimately beholden to self-interest. There is no morality in natural selection, only the need to exist another day by any means necessary. The Corner House was devoured by its own motivations, that which it spawned. So shall we all, should we ignore this cautionary tale.