People love to talk about why the church is dying. They have graphs, numbers, and possible causes.
What people don’t have is a solution. Some suggest that churches need to be more open and accepting; others say the church needs to be more tech savvy; while others say that denominations, themselves, are the problem. There are endless posts bemoaning the slowly dying church. But much like the character in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who is trying desperately to put his father on the cart of dead bodies before he is actually dead, I see this conversation about the dying church as a little misguided.
In fact, I say its all rubbish.
In keeping with the increasingly popular blog format of list-making, I propose a few reasons why the seemingly endless talk about the “end of the church” is not helpful or needed.
1. “The Body of Christ has died once, it cannot die again.” I wish that I could claim this wonderful insight, but it comes from Bishop Susan Goff of the Diocese of Virginia, where I am a Postulant. It came in the context of a talk she gave to my seminary class during our retreat last year. She said that the church can never die because its mission is too serious, its existence is too needed, and, most importantly, it is called for by God. This does not mean that the church will always look like it does right now (but more on that below). The Early Church would be shocked if they saw the church today – not because of any failing morals, but because there is no way they could have imagined what the church/world would look like two-thousand years in the future. In the same way that Martin Luther (whose actions were seen, by some, to be killing the church) could never have imagined a church that would produce Martin Luther King, we have no frame of reference for what the church will look like hundreds of years from now – let alone twenty-five years from now. They kept fighting the good fight because they believed that the Body of Christ would live on and that it would continue to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
2. Judge a tree by its fruit. Jesus was big on tree talk. He talked a lot about how some trees produce good fruit while other trees produce bad fruit. The good fruit producers go on producing good fruit, while the trees that produce bad fruit or don’t produce fruit at all are cut down or left to wither. It is a simple concept that applies to churches. If a church is producing good fruit (committed disciples of Christ, just and fair communities, healthy programs for kids and young adults, etc.) the church tends to grow or at least remains a stable part of its community. If a church begins producing bad fruit (increased in-fighting, cult of personality around a pastor or leader, little or no outreach, scandals, etc.) or no fruit at all, it tends to wither – sometimes slowly over years, other times quickly in a matter of months. Churches closing is not the worst case scenario if the church is not producing good fruit. Of course, the rub is that some of the churches that appear to be producing “bad” fruit (from the correct position of educated, liberal, “mainstream” Protestant denominations [please read sarcasm into this aside]) are growing at an incredible rate. I have no answer to this phenomenon except to say that the anecdotal evidence I have heard about mega-churches and their (often) “prosperity Gospel” message is that they are great places to worship… until something goes terribly wrong in your life. When life takes a turn towards tragedy and pain, being a face in the crowd at church is no longer a good thing. When it seems like your life is going to hell in a hand basket, it is refreshing to walk into a service where people know your name and can recognize the pain in your eyes. I want it to be clear that I am not bashing all mega-churches and I am not saying that every mega-church preaches the “prosperity Gospel”. Even the biggest and best-run mega-church has small groups, because they recognize that Christian community needs to be intimate enough for personal building-up and relationships.
3. Change is not bad. Repeat this phrase as many times as it takes for you un-clinch your fists and see straight again. The church will never again be like it was when you were growing up. Ever. There is no returning to mythological “good ole days” of the church. I say mythological because I am not convinced that the “good ole days” were all that good, but we humans have this nasty habit of making every memory a little better than it actually was. The church of the 1950s is gone. So is the church of the 1960s-1980s. In fact, the church of 2012 no longer exists. The church of December 17, 2013 is about to disappear. In the Gospels, Christ was always moving forward, always pressing on to his goal: Jerusalem. In the same way, the Body of Christ (the church) is always moving forward towards the goal of the New Jerusalem . Rob Bell’s new book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” has some great insights into this matter. We so often think that anything that is good has to stay the same or it will stop being good. Think about this: is the person (or pet or family member or performing artist) you are in love with the exact same that they were the moment you fell in love with them? I sure hope not. Both you have grown and matured and learned and changed. And yet, you are still in love. Without opening a huge can of worms, it is also worth noting that the “good ole days” of the church were only “good” for a select group of people. Minorities of all types did not share in the same “good ole days” of the church. Some of these minority groups are living in what could be considered their “good ole days” as we speak. We need to check our own perspectives before we start speaking for anything as big, diverse, and mysterious as the church.
4. Young adults are not actually leaving the church. The “breaking news” in church life for the past fifty years has been how the new generation (pick one: Generation X, Y, Z, Millenials, etc.) is lazy, disrespectful towards tradition and is leaving the church in record numbers. Someone will no doubt point out the surveys and polls that show that a growing number of young adults self-identify as “Nones” and that every year the number of non-church goers rises. Here is another figure: the median age of my class at seminary is 27. You read that right. Half of the Class of 2015 at the largest Episcopal seminary in the United States is under the age of 27. Young adults like my classmates and myself are so drawn to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the Episcopal Church that we would go to seminary, in the face of this false narrative of decline (check out this lecture by the Dean of VTS on this myth), and give our lives to the service of Christ and the church. Many parishes and Dioceses across the Episcopal Church have thriving youth and young adult programs that are attracting tons of people. Folks like Jason Evans in the Diocese of Washington are doing great work to bring young adults into the church because they recognize this fact: the Episcopal Church is in a wonderful position when it comes to young adults. Survey after survey shows that young adults want authenticity, tradition, and reverence in their worship (for more on the research see Dr. David Gortner’s book). Right off the bat you should have noticed that these are three descriptions of the Episcopal Church: authentic in our worship, supported by the Anglican tradition, and with a healthy dose of reverence that is missing from most other places in society.
This list is not exhaustive or authoritative. It is not my thesis and has not been researched as such. This post is simply to observation of a young adult who is tired of being told that people my age don’t go to church and that the church is quickly dying. I reject this narrative and propose instead that we keep our eyes on Christ and keep being the church (to each other and to the world).
As Christians, we claim that there is a King and a Kingdom coming that will make everything right and new, therefore we have no time for the cynicism that pervades much of American culture. As this wave of negativity and ‘what-if’ seeps into the life of the church, we must stand against it and with the cloud of witnesses proclaim, “Alleluia!” To paraphrase the book of Esther, we were made for such a time as this. We do not know what the church will look like in the future, but we can be sure it won’t look like it did in the past. There are already many groups that have stepped up to the task of working towards the changes that need to happen in the church. The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church is hard at work on the national level and individual Dioceses have started groups to come together, pray, and imagine what the church can be. Honoring those who have come before, helping those in the church today, and laying the foundation for a church that will serve the people of God well into the future.
We are not called to put on sackcloth and beat our chest at the end of the church. We are called to proclaim that that God we serve is not a God of the dead but of the living. Doomsday is coming, sure. Until that time, let us be the Body of Christ to a world in desperate need.