It marked the beginning of a profound cultural shift and the gradual end of five hundred years of modern history known as “Modernity.” It caused polite society to blush in anger and teenagers to dance with joy. It went virtually unnoticed by church leaders even though it was to have a profound effect on Christianity.
May 10, 1954, New York City became the fault line between Modernity and what would later be referred to by many as postmodernism. That was the year and the place in which Bill Haley and His Comets un-leased upon the world what would in time become the most important song in rock and roll history and the first to reach number one on the charts – Rock Around the Clock. And most of the world was in for the ride of its life! And yet most of mainline protestant leaders either shrugged it off as a non-event or spoke out against it.
That same year, in Benton Arkansas, Modernity was given another fatal blow. Sam Walton began experimenting with ways to outsell his competitors by offering lower prices. Over the next four decades what has become known as Wall Mart replaced the neighborhood grocery store as well as any other store that carried what Wall Mart carries and the landscape of much of the U.S. was changed. Small was no longer so beautiful. Big was becoming better. Surely this had nothing to do with the fact that during the same period of time the rise of the Mega church got underway. Or did it?
That same year mainline denominations were enjoying the zenith of their prime. The Seven Sisters of American Protestantism, as they were referred to then, were thriving, without a hint of what was to happen to them in less than ten years. After all, most of them were too big to fail. Sound familiar?
1954 was also the year I was introduced to Christ for the first time and my life was turned upside down and set on a totally different direction than I had previously chosen.
Fifteen years later, I was introduced to what was about to become The United Methodist Church. At the time the denomination boasted some eleven million members, second in size only to the loosely associated Southern Baptist Church, and not one of the Seven Sisters mentioned earlier. All I knew about Methodists was what I had learned by reading John Wesley. I fell in love with his form ministry. Little did I know at the time Wesley was little more than a vague memory for most Methodists.
Still, this once behemoth of a denomination gave me a place to live out my call and became my spiritual home for some forty years and counting. Many of my life-long friends were found in its midst. It also became the springboard for my consulting ministry which has brought me into contact with more than forty different Christian denominations.
Over these last twenty years of consulting ministry, I’ve come to love and respect a variety of denominational expressions of faith. So it saddens me to see what is happening to them. Every one of the Seven Sisters, in spite of merger after merger, is only a shadow of what they were when Bill Haley ushered in the rock and roll era. My own denomination has plummeted from eleven million members to slightly under nine million members since 1962.
Why is it that established Christianity always seems to be the last group to adapt to major change? It’s been over 50 years since Rock Around the Clock and the vast majority of established congregations in the U.S. still cling to a Lawerence Welk type of culture? It reminds me to the difference between the church at Jerusalem and the church at Antioch. One hunkered down in the past and had to be subsidized and the other forged a new path to the future.
Makes one wonder if the two huge movements underway today, church planting churches and multi-site churches, in time will become so established they too will miss the next great cultural revolution, say like the virtual church?
Just some food for thought from one who cares deeply about Christians who languish in the past while missing all God is doing in the present.