"Are We Outgrowing the Need for a Church?”[1]

Anna Garlin Spencer, retired; Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary

Berry Street Essay, 1929


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May 29, 1929


The Church, considered as a Unit, is the organized expression of man’s religious nature. Strip it of all foreign powers and attendant aids, and we find that in it which differentiates it from all other social influences. It is not now, as of old, the controlling power in all the higher concerns of life, but rather one of many moral masters of the world, and with this one specialty of teaching, to which it is increasingly confined,-viz: the translation of philosophy into worship, of ethics into personal character.  On its ideal side the Church is humanity's vision of the Perfect put into pictured form; on its practical side the church is drill-master in the culture of the individual will toward right living.    In a word the church is man's poor attempt to make the Divine manifest in the Human.

To day we are to consider whether or not man is outgrowing the Church as an institution.  All admit that the higher sentiments from which the Church has grown, will persist and seek ever some form of expression.  But Art and Literature, Science end Philanthropy, the Home and Nature, seem now to many all-sufficient temples.  And no one can deny that whereas in the life of fifty years ago in America all the better classes were constant church-goers, many of our most thoughtful and earnest and virtuous people today either do not go to church at all, or seldom and spasmodically. The book, the magazine, the newspaper are successful rivals to the sermon; the sanctity and rest of home, the healing and uplifting delights of nature supercede the church-service for very many.  And there are not wanting those who say that the Church, even in its most rationalized and spiritualized forms, is but a half-way house from superstition's altar to the free air of natural aspiration, in which each one is his own priest.  Some of these still go to church '”or the example”; others act out their true feeling without fear or ostentation, believing that all will some time feed their moral enthusiasm and their spiritual sense, as they themselves now do, with fruits plucked from the Tree of Life at first hand, by independent selection, rather than as the church-goers do from ever so "liberal” a table spread by the Saints, Sages and Seers of the world.

And doubtless there are those, of so self-centred life, of so rounded culture, of such balanced powers, that they can get all the Church has to give without her mediation. Whether these are not the very ones best fitted to serve at her altar, is a question we cannot open now; but we can conceive no condition of life in which such persons will not be the exceptional few, and it is of the common many and their needs we would speak.

Of one thing we may be sure, whatever else is doubtful, if the Church fills some need of the average human nature to which no other instrumentality does or can so well minister, then its permanence is secured by the divine law of utility.  Let us then try to discover what is the effect upon the average man and woman of the general influence of society outside the church; and if there are any elements of character not developed by these other influences let us try to discover whether the church has power in any form to make the needed contribution toward the ideal human life?

First then let us see what are the general distinctive elements of our civilization, and how they affect the individual lives of average men and woman? Are not those elements, speaking broadly, these three, viz: 1st. The development of natural science, which gives the tendency to view all nature and life as a process; 2nd. the specialization of thought and action, which gives the tendency to deal one-sidedly, or from a single view-point, with all faculties, conditions and relations of humanity; and 3rd. the industrial organization of society which gives the tendency to apply business standards of practical efficiency to all activities even moral and spiritual, to the sacrifice of ideal aims which are incapable of immediate realization?

Let us look at these elements of our present civilization more in detail. 1st. then, we said the development of natural science was a marked and distinguishing feature, and that it gave a tendency to view all nature and life as a process. Let us at the outset recognize the fact that the wonder-working master of our thought which we call Science has fixed our minds for the noblest and most beneficent uses upon the developing Order in all things. We could not enumerate half the debt we owe this new gift to the intelligence of man that is to say, to the discovery that inviolable Law and not caprice of despotic Will rules the universe.  This discovery has created a zeal for searching out facts and learning their inter-relations, and the laws governing their phenomena, which is the glory of our age.  It has given all sane & enlightened minds a feeling of security respecting the conduct of all physical, yes and of all moral affairs, unknown before to any save the seers of the unseen.  It has given a fixed starting-point for theologic speculation which prevents the old dangerous dizziness of conjecture in religious thought & thus given the foundation for a better religion than any yet known.  With all its gifts however, the penalty the growth of natural science has exacted from the average mind has been often a severe one.  It has fixed the attention so closely upon the processes which reveal and illustrate the Universal Order that to some minds the Informing Spirit of the universe has suffered eclipse. Many have grown so enamored of the ways of development that they have forgotten the truth that the life of a human being s a testimony to the Divine Life vaster and more awful as well as sweeter and more close to the heart, than any method by which human beings grow, can ever be.  The deeper and later effect of all true scientific teaching is indeed to give high as well as broad thinking. Nor should any disparage the reverent agnosticism of many scientific men.  It is a useful protest against the shallow and audacious familiarity of many ignorant people, who are accustomed to talk as if they held the secrets of the Infinite within their breasts?  Yet is it true that the heart of humanity yearned always in the past, and has not at all ceased to yearn for a God close and warm enough to love.  And the effect of much agnostic inference from scientific teaching has undoubtedly been to cloud the average conception of personality both in respect to the individual man and in relation to the Source of all that is.  The word of Religion is forever "I” and "Thou”.  "I” the conscious Person on earth, "Thou” above the Father of Spirits!  Doubtless that personal word of Religion has been lost to the hearing of many in our day through the abstract translations of the Universe given us in scientific thought, W have been impressed as never before with the grandeur of the Whole of Life: with the Eternal Energy at the heart of all things. We have gone out into the open and have learned the secrets of awe and humility told only to those who tent upon the mountain tops of vision.  But meanwhile to many the keen winds upon those heights have brought chilling fears lest there be nothing in the Universal Powers which can feel and respond to our feeling.  And the vast outlook has made the individual life of man seem to many too small and transient a thing upon which to build an immortal sonship to an eternal Father!  Hence many wise and good of our time wander homeless through the world, mourning secretly that they have "lost the great companion in the Heavens.” They are speechless when suffering and bereavement appeal to them for comfort; unnerved and bewildered when death snatches their own beloved from their side or shameful sins touch them close.  How many of these wise of our time can hope for the race, but have no trust for the wicked individual life, that it shall have another chance to try: How many can tell you what to do for the elevation of humanity at large, but have no power to fibre weak wills, their own or another’s, upon the everlasting Strength, in such fashion that the single life may climb to moral safety!  How many fearing to say longer "Our Father who art in Heaven” feel orphaned and adrift and cling weakly to some mortal support frail and imperfect as themselves!  Not so live and feel the trustful and believing of any time.  We who can say with Jesus "I and my Father are one” though sin and sorrow make life at times all one quivering  pain, can find some central peace in which to rest and gather strength for a happier moment.  He who dares consciously lean upon an everlasting Love, though life and aspiration be at odds, though darkness and mystery shut our truth's sun, though. right itself needs proving and justice seem asleep, he who thus trusts in the eternal goodness "clings still amidst the mad maddening maze of things to that fixed stake” and waits with patience for clearer knowledge.  And to these believing and trustful souls the world of wretchedness and sin and ignorance and weakness turn for help as to no others.  To them are brought the sick of body and of mind that the shadow of their benignant presence may give healing and peace.  To them the bereaved hearts, emptied of their treasure, turn for surer faith that love will find again its own.  Upon them the restless and the bewildered lean for direction.  They bear the sorrows of their world and by their travail pains sweet faith is born and the Immanuel is manifested in deed and in truth to yearning hearts. The brightest hope of the present time as of all the past is in the unbroken line of these Prophets of the Soul.  Within and without the organic Church, calling themselves by all names and by no name, they walk their ways of healing and of joy.  A light is on their faces; you shall not mistake it even though their features be drawn with pain and wasting care.  A peace is at their hearts; you shall not fail to know it even when they suffer and visibly shrink from some cup of anguish.  A trust unshaken giveth them songs in the night; you shall hear the echo in their common speech, though their tones may be tremulous with human weakness. Whatever the common religious association may be, the Church, the true Church, is where these minister and lead the thought and feeling of weaker winged mortals to the heights of faith and love.  And if at any time the word of religion faileth, the life of such as these is the light of men!

Of course if it is not true in any sense of any words that the Eternal at the heart of things is Love that can be felt, all these are wrong! And truth, even if sadness come with it is better than any mistaken joys of falsehood.  But I assume here, what I believe is always experienced rather than proved, that there is that in the Universe from which the soul of this religious trust may consciously, does actually, draw its life.  There is that in the Universe, however we name or describe it, by which through the experience of all mankind everywhere these prophets of the Soul have been justified.

If this be not so then is deceit ingrained at the core of our being, and a lie feeds the soul to a strength of purpose and of attainment greater than all else man's experience has given.  And that seems unthinkable!

If, then, the prophet of the Soul who experiences and proclaims the God within, testifies of that which really is to him who truly sees, then the Church, which is the organized expression of this religious sentiment rests upon the greatest, the most interior fact, of human life.  If worship was ever the highest attitude of the soul it is so yet.  If conscious, glad, trustful relationship with the Universal and Eternal in life was ever a real experience of the human soul, it must forever be the richest endowment of our natures.  And looking abroad today we see no influence in modern life which places its emphasis on this attitude and endowment of the soul as does the Church.  And the fact that we are learning so much of the phenomena of life is the very fact that increases rather than lessens our need of the Church’s affirmation of the Life Itself!  We need as no other people of any time needed to rest our eyes wearied with details of process upon the "central Peace subsisting at the heart of endless agitation.” We need to soothe our hearts, shocked with a new sense of our helplessness and little worth in the infinity which surrounds us, with a feeling of nearness to the One in All.

The second distinctive element of our modern life is the specialization of thought and action; and this specialization gives the tendency, we said, to view life and conduct from one point only, and thus often leads to onesided judgements. The vast increase of knowledge, the growing demand for thorough mastery of one's own business, the increasing competition which pushes "the top” of all professions higher and higher, these make it impossible that the average man should be anything but a specialist in his study and in his work.  What machinery has done for trade is to take away from the individual workman all power to produce by his own independent labors a completed article.  He does his little part of a shoe or a hat, a machine or an implement, and his work and that of the machine he operates is fitted by a planning "head” into a great industry.  Precisely so the accumulations of modern thought and the increasing complexity of modern society fix the single worker in the higher forms of activity to a most minute and mechanical service.  The great business of the world is hastened doubtless and made more exact and efficient by this division of labor. But the individual laborer, unless richly varied in natural quality or of unusual breadth of culture, is thereby made too much a part of the social machine for the best personal growth.  The mill-worker often has one or two motions of the arms and fingers to keep up through long years of life.  How can he help feeling himself only a "hand”?  The literary hack, the Doctor or lawyer, even, each with his small specialty in his great profession, must be ever on the alert in his one narrow line. How can he help growing to feel if he is a "lung” Dr. that all the world is consumptive; if he is a "criminal lawyer” that all the world is vicious; if he is a newsgatherer for the press that all the world is a tale-monger?

Surely there is but one way in which the tendency of our work shall "have its pound of flesh” without taking also our blood of life!  It is by an influence surrounding us, close and constant, which shall summon the Unity of our own natures to self-assertion, and show the likeness to some central Unity of all life.  Show also that likeness in personal relation rather than in mechanical adjustment.  Somehow, by educational forces appealing to the common imagination, we must offset the dwarfing of the Person in which the specializing tendencies of our time result, or the old appeal to man as a Unit of moral and spiritual force will lose its power.

"All life is still developed from the soul” says the poet, and adds, "It takes a soul to move a body even to a cleaner stye.” And the word of Religion, in its practical side of the culture of the will toward right living, rests at last upon the Unity, the Personality of the individual life.  I know of no influence in society which in spite of its follies and shames so proudly calls to souls from the top of souls” as does the Church!  I know of no word said anywhere which so arouses the feeling of wholeness (which we rightly translate "Holiness”) in a man as its word of Worship.  Six-sevenths of most men's time is spent in serving as a link only in a vast mechanism of social demand and supply: on one day at least he should be appealed to as a whole Person.  And in seeking the Eternal outside himself he often does find within himself eternal verities.  Personalizing the Soul of all that is, as the word of aspiration, trust and worship must ever do, his own conscious personality gathers form from out the fragmentary activities of his daily work.  Many do indeed get just this correction for the specialization of our time from sources of influence not named with the Church name.  Many get it in some intellectual perception which gives a broad outlook and a sense of Universal Relation.  Many get it in Art; many in Science; many in Social Reforms; who perhaps never attend a Church service.  But these must be those who in their several departments climb high enough to see the Ideal in their work. For the average need and the average opportunity there is no such private road to the heights The multitude get their uplift best, and many of the finest and strongest natures get it quickest, from "the chanting choir that trances the heart,” from the spirit of worship "which bestrides the kneeling host”.

And here again the distinctive element of our time makes the old need for the temple service not outgrown but more pressing than ever.

The third distinctive element of our modern civilization is its industrial organization, and the tendency this gives, as we said, to fix practical efficiency as the standard in ethics as elsewhere in human activity, thus narrowing the ideals of tomorrow to the compromises of today.  No doubt the industrial organization of society is a vast step upward from the military:  we will not stop to question it even though Carlyle sigh for the strong man of war.  But one thing at least the military organization of society did give to man’s moral nature, namely, that Hero-worship which inspires uncalculating & enthusiastic devotion.  And unless we can keep alive in some new form that spirit which dies gladly for the life of its beloved Dream, on the battlefield of defeat if need be, then has the glory faded out of life.  The martyr thrill is the throb of the that Infinite Purpose which through man’s growing pains achieves ever higher & higher developement. That passionate devotion to an idea which counts no cost, but rushes on to noble death, is the buried seed of one generation’s thought and feeling, without which there can be no golden fruitage in the next.  Our wise modern ways of balancing greater and lesser evil, of calculating to a dot before we move just the safe and judicious next step for today, our mercantile bargainings in ethics, our business-like methods of reform, these are all well no doubt.  They correct the fanatics blunderings, they chasten the partizan’s passion.  But that which in social morals works "Spring’s delicious trouble in the ground”, that which makes all things new again in a fresh effort toward human perfection, that is not born of such nice distinctions, such compromising half-measures.  The revolt of the soul against all that narrows, mars or pollutes, the passionate striving for the absolute Right, the perfect Good, these are what fire the heart of youth to noble consecrations, these are what give the vital strength to all ethical movements.  And in some way the channels of social influence must in our time as in all other be filled with this old fire of devotion if moral force sufficient for moral growth is to be generated.  There are great social movements of our day, great specialties of reform, which do generate and direct just this enthusiastic and uncalculating service.  And the Church of today lags generally speaking behind these in this ethical devotion. 

Yet when the Church rightly apprehends her relation to moral reforms she may offer a more all-inclusive stimulant to moral devotion than any other influence can supply.  Special reforms have each their excluding shibboleth, often a very narrow one and harshly enforced.  The Church when fully conscious that she is set the task not only, of enforcing today’s duty but of awakening zealous search for tomorrow’s standard of right, the Church may speak the word at once of reconciling fellowship and of ethical passion.  The Religious emphasis of every moral problem takes one at once out from the compromises of the "practical” calculating element of  detail and out from the discords of contending standards of right.  Today the great need in Social Reform is for this two-fold deliverance at some Altar of the Ideal.  Today on the one side the ardent heartof ethical reform is chilled by the application of business standards to moral movements; today on the other side, the specialists in reform harden their activity into bigoted ruts too often, for want of that balanced worship of the Best which the religious sentiment expresses and cultivates.

The Church as the organized expression of this religious sentiment must then it, seems, be here to stay.

If so, it must change its form with the changing conditions of man’s life. It may, it must, experience ebb and flow in its power as an Institution as the generations come and go, each with its varying gift to mankind, one of thought, another of feeling & another of action.

Its accessories may, doubtless they will, alter past our present perception as its function becomes more and more specialized in the growing complexity of life.  But unless the root elements of human nature are permanently changed, the aspiration ands ethical passion of mankind will kneel at some Altar and voice themselves in some heart-name for the Infinite, in some sort of a Church.

I seem to catch a vision at times of the world’s temple that is to be.-- Signs without number everywhere seem to outline and color that hidden vision.  It is of a Temple of Religion, of the everlasting and eternal in religion, not cumbered with form or creed that perish in the using.  It is a temple of all human faiths, not bound to race or clime or age.  Its majestic walls rise out of the marketplace like purple mist-crowned mountains from the sandy plain.  It is a "cave to think in” open night and day to him who in a still place apart would contemplate truth, "would see the face of the Eternal”.  It is a refuge from temptation, open night and day to the wandering and homeless who would be protected from the evil influences without, who would hear more clearly the inward challenges to right.  It is a place of beauty, soothing eyes tired with the sordid and common by its perfect portraiture of the best in nature aid in human life.  It is a place of quiet, hour after hour its great spaces bathe the soul, vexed with noise and confusion, in silence like that of the forest depths.  It is a place of music, ever and again the organ swells and pure voices carry upward hymns of praise and trust, of yearning and of rapture, in which no word of dogma or of exclusion is heard.  It is a place of perfect freedom he enters who will, and findeth there no metes nor bounds; like sky and ocean the influence is for him who feels.  And in the vast stretch of aisle and arch one doth not jostle his neighbor and a whole city full may throng there and together worship if they will.  It is a place of prefect fraternity.  Each findeth in his own language the jewels of his ancestral faith strung on the chord of an all embracing sympathy and set in its stately ritual.  It is a place of solemn reverence where no man dare intrude his shallow mood of argument upon you.  It is a place of poetic daring, where each may voice his trust and lead the way to heights of feeling revealed to him in secret vision. It is a place of consecrated labor for the humanities: Chapel after chapel ranging along the sides of its great walls, give ample verge & hospitable home for close and helpful brotherhoods to meet in and do each its own noble work of comfort, protection, training and blessing our kind.  And from these Chapels all who work for Better in the world that now is meet together around one altar in one Service of Worship of that Perfect which knows no Past or Future but is the Eternal Now & the Everlasting Here.

Not much like this vision of the church to be, is the fragmentary and disjointed Church life of our day.  Not much like this the "Salvation Army” with its drums and vulgar songs.  Not much like this the warring of the sect-chapels with defiance bristling from each paltry steeple.  Not like this the effort of those within the more popular churches to "tinker” their poor wornout creeds and fearfully grope along toward a more spiritual faith.  Not much like our vision, even, the cautious efforts of the more liberal church-men to carry over unharmed the sacred vessels of life’s altar from one old temple to another, forgetful as they are that the Spirit forever maketh all things new.  Not much like this the critical work of those who would strip the past’s altars altogether and level all temple walls.  Not much like our vision even the freest purest gladdest effort to build here and now a fit Tabernacle for the heart's sweetest faith out of the thought’s latest reason.  But in the patient detail work of those who build the bridges of the new highways of the Spirit, in the differing emphases of the varied services to Truth and Right, in the reticence of the few and in the childish speech of the many, above all in the growing sense of human fraternity and the growing devotion to human weal in all these are earnest of that which shall be.

Meanwhile the humblest worshipper’s vision of the Perfect Church to be, if he be but faithful to it, will prove as the light to the eye, the sculptor's dream to the statue, the musician's thronging melodies to the written score.

As he labors there in his small fashion at his day's work, the Perfect Ideal of which he has caught faint glimpses "waits there to invite him as he climbs.”

Nay better still, the Purpose at the heart of humanity's aspirations is surely shaping both Temple and worshippers to sublime ends as yet undreamed.


[The following paragraph is marked by the archivist:  "This page seems out of place.”  There is no apparent place in the manuscript where it appears to fit, but it bears upon the topic and may have been the draft of an earlier ending or a different section of the essay.]

To hold its place as a leading power in men’s lives, however, the church must grow constantly.  It must grow ever wiser and wiser in its thought as it responds ever more and more perfectly to the fresh revelations of the Supreme Reason of the Universe.  It must grow ever nobler in its ethical ideals and more exacting in its moral demands upon the individual consciences as it reaches and inspires a grander passion for the Perfect Right of the Universe.  It must grow ever broader and keener in its social sympathy as it conspires more into intelligently with the Divine purpose in human history, ever broader in its social sympathy until "it nothing human alien deems or disesteems man’s meanest claim upon it.” Finally it must grow ever sweeter and more spiritual in its appeal to and expression of the religious sentiment, wooing with ever higher flight that "breath of a diviner air that blows an answer to our prayer” until its worshippers may find 

"That duty leaves to love its task;

The beggar self forgets to ask;

With smile of trust and folded hands

The passive soul in waiting stands

To feel as flowers the sun and dew

The One True Life its own renew."


[1] Papers of Anna Garlin Spencer, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.