June 2, 2014

The Church Is (Not) Dying!

A colleague of mine sent me this image a while back. It's the headline from a Washington Post article published in 1925. Due to significant decreases in attendance and contributions, the Episcopal Church was going to make serious budget cuts. Serious enough to catch the attention of the Washington Post.

If the Episcopal Church was taking a hit I can only imagine what it was like for the finances of most of the other Christian traditions in N. America at the time.

I haven't had the time to do much research on this. But a preliminary dig into the history of church attendance in N. America shows that there have been periods in which church participation has seen noticeable reduction. In fact, during the early years of the U.S.'s inception some sources believe that only 10% of the population were churchgoers (so much for the 'faith of our founding fathers,' eh?).

Why do I mention this? Because there's a lot of talk these days about the death of the church. It gets a lot of attention but I am no longer convinced that inciting anxiety is all that helpful. And rarely does anxiety hold much of a historical perspective.

The truth is, we have been here before. While the landscape may have changed a bit, if we look back far enough into the church's past we will find that we have faced similar challenges before.

So, take a deep breathe. Exhale. Let go of some of that anxiety...

But you're not off the hook!

Will current forms of church die? Most certainly. We have to come to terms with the unsustainable nature of many of our choices and habits.

Will the Church die? No. The Church, the Body of Christ, is much more than buildings and budgets... And, afterall, we are a people that believe in resurrection! If we truly take stock in that, we have little to fear.

It seems to me that rather than obsessing on decline–or dying for the more dramatic–we ought to take stock in a few things:

Our history ought to give us an imagination for the future, not hold us captive. What can we learn from our past? How did the church respond to similar challenges at different times? From my experience, the one challenge we face in local congregations with this is that we tend to get fixated on a particular point in our history that prevents us from the benefit of our whole narrative. Be careful of the "glory days."

Change happens. It's part of life, the sooner we stop denying this the sooner we can get on living into reality. One of my heroes, Gordon Cosby, once wrote, "The church, the Body of Christ, is always changing. We take our form in the particular local and global environment of our particular period of history. We bring our society, the total global community, to God’s vision of newness, and we ask what would Jesus want his community to look like now, against this global backdrop."

The prevailing culture is not the enemy, simply our context. Culture had seen great shifts during the 1920's when church attendance patterns were shifting as well. Interestingly–as far as I can tell, Christian fundamentalism was simultaneously on the uptick. Fundamentalism offered the most strident reaction to those cultural shifts (consider the Scopes Monkey Trial). The primary concern of the church is not whether to condemn or acquiesce culture. Rather, it is to discern how to announce and demonstrate the Gospel in a particular context.

More later.