by Pastor Doug Kings

Twenty-five years ago this spring, a book was published which marked a turning point in my ministry, and my life. The book was Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998) by then Episcopal bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong (1931-2021). Spong’s intended audience was made clear in the book’s subtitle: “A bishop speaks to believers in exile.” In the book Spong also describes such people as “members of the church alumni association.” He was writing to those who had left the church or had one foot out the door. It was a large group then which has only gotten bigger since.

Throughout his career—as parish priest, bishop, public speaker, and author—Spong’s primary goal has been to embody Christian faith in a way that was honest to and relevant to the contemporary world. He was an ardent advocate for civil rights in his native South and later for full inclusion in the church of LGBT people.

Spong drew lots of flack for these positions, but this book resulted in a whole new level of disdain and condemnation. For in this case, it wasn’t the church’s misbehavior that he was exposing and judging. Rather, he was putting Christianity itself under the microscope and exposing what he believed was a fatal sickness: its dependence on the ideas of the ancient, pre-modern world.

Through chapter after chapter, Spong examines the parts of traditional Christianity’s structure and finds it on the verge of collapse: creeds, doctrines, scripture, liturgy, theology. All of them depend, to one degree or another, on the ancient 3-tier universe of heaven, hell, and a flat earth in between. It’s this universe, of course, starting in the Enlightenment, which science has blasted apart.

The modern universe is the universe in which we all live, including Christians. Most Christians and their churches, for example, have adopted modern technologies as quickly as anyone else. But traditional ideas about God, heaven, creation, miracles, prayer, human origins, human behavior, and so on find no easy place in a 14-billion-year-old universe, vast in size and a complexity beyond imagination. Spong believed that disconnect, and the refusal of Christians to address it or even recognize it, threatens to leave Christianity in history’s dustbin.

The church I pastored in 1998 (in Kokomo, Indiana) had an unusually large number of technically and scientifically oriented members, thanks to the nearby Delco Electronics plant. I sensed that while Spong’s book would while likely upset some of our members, others might be interested in reading and talking about. For the first (and only) time, I had a “by invitation only” church discussion group. I emailed twenty people, hoping maybe half would be interested in participating.

Everyone said “yes.” Soon we were meeting weekly in my living room. The atmosphere the first night was electric. One person summed up the group’s attitude when he said, “I didn’t know anyone else in the church thought like this. I thought I was the only one.” Heads nodded all around.

We soon realized that we were a support group to each other, as much as anything else. (Later, honoring the author, the group dubbed themselves “The Sponges.”) People shared ideas and experiences they hadn’t felt safe expressing before, at least not in the church. Questions that nagged people for years, sometimes most of their lives, and they hadn’t felt could be asked, now got a full airing. And rather than being threatened, everyone felt their faith come alive in the conversations, something most hadn’t experienced in a long time.

Not surprisingly, fundamentalists and evangelicals have viewed Spong as outrageous, his ideas blasphemous. What surprised me, though, was the cold shoulder Spong got from most (but not all) mainline and supposedly progressive church leaders. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on: they were scared. And more than a little self-centered and lazy.

While expressed more pointedly and succinctly than usual, Spong’s ideas were not new. They’ve been standard fare in mainline seminaries and university religion departments for a century or more, as I had experienced myself. But when it came to parish life, they were treated like state secrets: volatile information which in the wrong hands could wreak havoc. Seminarians and new pastors were counseled to keep all this under their hats. Talking about these things will only get people upset, and besides, it doesn’t really matter.

And that is the great lie churches have been burdened with, for it absolutely does matter. Churches have hidden—and hidden from—the truth for fear of losing members. And how well has that worked out? As I near 40 years in ministry, I have watched my denomination lose half its membership, with most others having similar experiences. The great churches of Europe are now more museums than homes to worshiping congregations. Everywhere smaller churches are being torn down or converted into condominiums, art galleries, bars and restaurants. For the first time in its polling, Gallup reports less than half of US adults belong to a congregation of any kind.

The number one reason young people give for not being Christian is that they simply don’t believe what it teaches. But not only is Christianity viewed as unreliable, it is also increasingly seen as irrelevant. As I quoted a few weeks ago, Spong’s daughter said to him, “Dad, the questions the church keeps trying to answer, we don’t even ask anymore.” The rise of the “spiritual but not religious” is hardly surprising.

Shortly before his death, Spong published one more book, Unbelievable, which will be our next discussion group subject beginning next week. In it, ala Luther, he proposes 12 theses for the reform of Christianity to make it relevant and meaningful for life in the contemporary world.

I believe Spong’s critique of Christianity today is spot on, his proposed solutions maybe less so. But Spong himself would not be offended by that. He always saw his task as stirring the pot and generating conversation. He was never wedded to any particular solution. What outraged him was the church’s denial that there was any problem to be solved.

Even today, much of the church has its head in the sand. But thanks to Bishop Spong and others, a growing number are finding the courage to look up and see what is happening. The recognize that, far more than institutional or career preservation, knowing the truth is what is most important, for it is, as Jesus says in John, what sets us free.

Blessings in your life and ministry.