From 'liberal' pews, a rising thirst for personal moral code

Mainline Protestant congregations, known for emphasizing the social-justice and global-equity dimensions of the Gospel, are increasingly making space for airing parishioners' day-to-day moral dilemmas, which they used to leave largely between an individual and God.

Often, this thirst for a personal code of conduct is being satisfied among lay members themselves, who gather in small groups in homes, cafes, and church basements to talk over daily moral challenges.

What's new is that it's appearing in "blue state," liberal-leaning churches, which appear to be taking a page from the playbook of conservative megachurches that have long used small groups to reinforce Christian morality - and to help members feel connected and satisfied.

Guidance in private moral matters helps keep the spirit alive, says Jim Adams of the Center for Progressive Christianity in Cambridge, Mass. "I think people want it and need it," he says. "Progressive churches that are thriving do pay as much attention to the personal as they do to the social and the political.... That's where people get what they need to sustain their lives."

When Bob Potter joined St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan, little did he expect that he would soon be advising fellow members how to live their lives. But when a man in his church discussion group was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Mr. Potter and five others in the group asserted a robust moral guidance, urging him to reconcile with every member of his family who had become estranged since learning he was gay.

"We encouraged that, and to a certain extent, we bridged the gap" by phoning reluctant family members and encouraging meetings, he says.

Such daring encounters with one another's moral struggles have become remarkably regular at "St. Bart's," a progressive congregation whose average Sunday attendance has leapt from 100 to 1,200 since the early 1990s. Small groups that discuss personal dilemmas deserve much of the credit, according to Rector William Tully.

Other churches reversing years of decline say the same is true for them as well.

"This modern resurgence of interest [in small groups] in the past 15 years is authentically a new thing," says Ian Evison, director of research at the Alban Institute, a think tank for mainline American Christianity in Herndon, Va. "People found themselves with all these self-help groups, and it tended to create a culture for how things are dealt with."

In this new wave, groups of six to 12 members are convening - officially, at least - to pray, watch films, do crafts, or simply eat and chat without any obligation to say much at all. Yet under these nonthreatening auspices, church-based groups - especially in Northern states, - are coming to offer something quite profound in the eyes of church watchers. They report a subtle re-creation of safe spaces and sources of guidance that had gradually become the domain of workplace spirituality teams and 12-step recovery groups, which often rent space from churches.

Churchgoers are increasingly willing to go to their peers in the pews for guidance, says Mr. Evison, in part because few want to rely on clergy for one-on-one counseling in an era charged with sexual-abuse scandals.

Another reason has to do with urban lifestyles that include fewer "occasions for natural friendships" among adults who miss the blunt advice given in childhood and college days, according to Mr. Adams.

Whatever the causes, some hope they've found an effective way to stem decades of declining numbers in mainline churches.

Highly progressive and politically minded Unitarian Universalists, for instance, have helped small groups take root in hundreds of congregations across the denomination. Meanwhile, their denomination has been adding members over the past 10 years at a pace unseen elsewhere in progressive religion. The correlation, Adams says, is not a coincidence.

In Potter's group from St. Bart's, members find sustenance by topping off an evening of food and scripture with specific prayers for one another's needs and sometimes a helping of tough love.

One unemployed participant used to vent his depression at their biweekly gatherings, but after a swift résumé clinic with a consultant in the group, he made sure to arrive each time ready to tick off everything he'd been doing to find work.

Bible group boosts courage

Across the East River in Brooklyn, the phenomenon continues in a subtler form. Janice Etchison says three years ago she would never have thought about joining something so intimate as a home-based prayer group.

But St. Bart's church boosted her courage, and soon she found herself listening on the phone as a fellow group member would confide feelings surrounding her ongoing affair with a married man.

"She felt I was willing to hear her and accept her," says Ms. Etchison. She didn't push issues of right and wrong but instead let the woman talk herself to a decision to break off the relationship. She took that tack in part because "we are not judgmental people."

What's more, in her view the moral backdrop needed no reinforcement: "I think in things like this, between women it's understood what can happen."

Forging small groups for support and encouragement is not entirely new to mainline Protestantism.

In the 18th century, Methodism founder John Wesley pioneered "class meetings" for 12 or fewer who would help one another live morally upright lives. Today's accountability groups - seen in the so-called "red states" as men and women convene, often separately, to confess the week's moral missteps and pray for strength to do better - follow in this Wesleyan tradition.

Where today's groups are clearing new ground seems to be in the more culturally reserved "blue states."

A grounding in doctrinal moorings?

Here, churches are casting their nets widely to capture the interest of all generations, even people averse to all things touchy-feely. But in creating safe spaces through groups that might be organized around anything from parenting to meditation, churches run the risk of losing the solid Christian moorings of their morality, according to church historian Elizabeth Nordbeck.

"A kind of diffuse piety probably isn't going to be very lasting or very helpful in a time of crisis," says Ms. Nordbeck, a professor at Andover Newton Theological School.

A wise investment to steer what she sees as an otherwise "hopeful" movement, she suggests, would be for churches to make sure group members learn the church's historic "disciplines of piety or personal devotions," such as spiritual reading or structured prayer.

To keep St. Bart's 16 home groups focused on living up to moral standards, trained lay leaders learn to respect the "right to reticence" among those who would rather listen than speak in a group.

They also learn to "manage the one or two people who will dominate or sabotage any small group," according to the Rev. Mr. Tully, rector of St. Bart's. As groups display these traits week in and week out, he says, members come to see one another as trustworthy.

"If the leader won't manage the talkative ones or will manipulate the untalkative ones, it sort of shatters the covenant," says Tully.

"Often what people will reveal toward the end is that they have had a bad religious experience [at some point in their lives], and they're watching very carefully to see whether this is a safe place."

Many seem willing to try. At Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., the Rev. Madison Shockley drew on his African-American roots to introduce small groups in a mostly white setting where outreach to the poor is a proud tradition and ministry to one another has long seemed a less important, even "self-centered," endeavor.

But new groups for parents are steadily attracting more than 40 participants, and shared baby-sitting costs mean several people are actually doing more outreach projects than before.

Opening door to community

As small-group ministries mature, moral self-improvement is in certain circles coming to be understood as something of an outreach project of its own. So it seems to the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla.

"In the past, there was a tendency for liberals to see evil as something out in the world that we are called to stop, such as poverty or oppression," says Mr. Lavanhar.

"Today there is a growing sense that part of the work of countering evil and building up our world is done through self-awareness and personal transformation."

In seeking moral counsel, religious progressives are opening a door by which others in the community might influence their preciously guarded domain of individual conscience. Yet in doing so, they hope to reach what is for them an even higher priority.

"We tell each other what we think the gospel would have us do," says Potter. "We say, 'Tell us how you really feel,' and then we ask, 'Is there a target that would be more Christlike?' "

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