On Growing the Mainline Church: Wisdom from Quarks and Einstein

In a time of grief and turmoil after the death of his sister, Maja, Albert Einstein wrote to his stepdaughter Margot, "Look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better."

In the spirit of Einstein, I would like to suggest that a quark--a subatomic particle--offers wisdom and guidance to the mainline church, which stands today in grief and turmoil as it faces a steady and precipitous decline in membership.

But first, let me explain what a quark is.

Atoms are made of protons, electrons, and neutrons. As author Bill Bryson explains, "Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this 'i' can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them." Three quarks fit inside a proton. Physicists categorize quarks as the true building block of all matter, from the Eiffel Tower to a cardboard Starbucks coffee sleeve.

In the 1960s, physicist Murray Gell-Mann named quarks after a phrase in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!" Quarks run in packs of three, so Gell-Mann believed the word captured this newly discovered particle's numerical as well as whimsical identity.

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winner and MIT physics professor, maintains that quarks interact with each other in "asymptotic freedom."

What does that mean?

Wilczek discovered that if quarks are pulled apart inside a proton, the "strong force" binding them together actually grows stronger, making it impossible to isolate a single quark outside a proton. However, as quarks move closer to each other, the opposite is true: The force between them grows weaker, giving them more freedom to move.

So how can the quark help the mainline church grow?

When I became active in the mainline church 25 years ago, specifically in the Presbyterian Church (USA), membership was nearly double what it is today. People now joke it might be prudent to ask the last Presbyterians to please turn off the lights as they close the door. That's why one of the urgent issues for the mainline church is how to relate to a new generation of potential church attendees, the millennials--a generation that has now numerically surpassed baby boomers and will exceed Generation X by 2028.

Who are millennials?

A Pew Research Center study reveals that millennials resist being placed in categories, even such seemingly positive ones as "patriotic," "responsible," "willing to sacrifice," "religious," "moral," "self-reliant," and "politically active." Millenials are diverse, 43 percent non-white, and increasingly tolerant of ideas such as same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, and allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship. But millennials also aspire to belong to authentic communities and to participate in networks of peer groups--81 percent, for example, are active on Facebook.

In other words, millennials are quarks.

Millennials covet and enjoy their freedom, but at the same time they long for a "strong force" to keep them from feeling isolated.

This raises a question: What "strong force" might bind millennials to the church? Barna Research notes that what draws millennials to church is not the promise of relationships (only 5 percent attend church to meet friends), but to feel "closer to God" and "learn more about God" (71 percent). In other words, what the church offers millennials is an invitation to discover a "strong force" that does bind us, that never leaves us feeling isolated or alone-- a force we call "God."

In 1617 the archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis reflected on challenges the church was experiencing and suggested the path forward was: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

Grief and turmoil are an undeniable part of life and of all organizations, including the church, but I believe one way to grow the mainline church is, as Einstein described, to "look deep, deep into nature" and to be inspired by how quarks, the smallest known particles in the universe, were created with unwavering resistance to being pulled apart but also the freedom to interact without constraint.

Keeping such insights in mind as we define the church's "essentials" and "non-essentials" will likely increase the odds of a new generation being drawn into our communities of faith.