I work in the church, and I am quite devoted to that line of work. And over the past month or so, people of my ilk have been obsessively reacting to this Pew survey that seems to unilaterally say that the Mainline church is dying. [Mainline Protestant churches and Catholics declined 3.4% and 3.1% in just 6 years. This guy goes ahead and says that the Mainline Protestants are “hemorrhaging.”]
So, please be fore-warned: I am about to be opinionated. And my opinion is not warranted by research or numbers, but rather “just” extensive exposure and dedication to The Church, which is in one moment beautiful and miraculous and at another moment maddening, obnoxious, and hurtful.
And with that in mind, I say this:
The Church is not dying. The Church is failing, and there is a difference.
The word “dying” is passive. It is as if we are sitting around quietly wilting away while the culture around us turns against us and decides that they’re not interested in God anymore. It is as if gradually nobody wanted to play with us on the playground anymore. It suggests that we did nothing to engender this reaction. And friends, let’s be honest–we did.
But, let’s not go on a guilt trip. The point is that
I have never noticed or perceived that people were not interested in God anymore. People are incredibly hungry for God. It isn’t that people don’t want to experience God. It is that The Church of the 1950s is failing to be a place where that happens.
In my life, I have met countless of these “nones” and these Millennials who don’t like church. They are profoundly hungry to talk about God. Profoundly in need of spiritual guidance. Profoundly hungry for acceptance, trust, love.
And very rarely are these conversations mature, thoughtful faith dialogues. These things come up at drunken college parties, on awkward first dates, as soon as something about gay people is in the vicinity, or as soon as a fight can be picked. These people did not have religious communities that taught them how to be an adult in faith, never taught them how to go beyond petty religious behavior, never taught them how to safely discuss serious issues. Many of them never had churches who took their childhood religiosity seriously, and then viewed them as dangerous and broken when they went through their (very normal) stage of questioning as a teenager.
Many of them never had churches that did the hard work of serving the poor that they believed the church was about. Many felt excluded by the inappropriate and unloving stances on GLBT issues, or women’s issues, or society as a whole. Many are deeply scarred by the sex abuse scandals and the abuse of authority in the church. Many just got tired of the petty squabbles between the various old timers in the congregation, or the obsession with “the way it used to be”, or the way there always seemed to be insiders and outsiders.
Many never saw any point in going to church, because it was not a place that enriched their lives. For some, the concept of God is so tainted by problems that they could not imagine the love of that God–or even did not want the love of that God.
And that’s our problem, not theirs. We’ve failed to be mature and sincere in our faith, not the other way around. If we can’t give people a space to meet the God that wants to meet them, than we have failed in our mission.
So before you get all bent out of shape by the fact that I’m using the word “failing”, I will point out one thing: Even the ministry of Jesus was perceived as a failure until a few crazies began to retell the story.
The Messiah of the Israelites was nailed to a tree and killed in the most demeaning way possible, the most epic failure of all religious leaders of all time–that guy who was supposed to restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory was a huge failure.
And, in the grand scheme of things–I think it turned out okay.
But, it took sincere and authentic believers, who encountered the work of God in that failure, to turn that truck around. They saw God doing new things, and they told that story of resurrection, rather than the depressing and disheartening story that the Messiah was not going to restore the Kingdom of David.
They preached about the new work that they saw God do, not how depressing it was that Jesus was not going to ride in on a shiny white horse and make the church the robust place it was in the 1950s when Sunday School classrooms were full, committees abounded, and there was a full time secretary.
Yes, the establishment church is failing. Yes, the establishment church where people show up out of obligation and listen to the pastor because that’s just what you do–yes, that has failed.
And that’s okay, because the Establishment Church of Perennial Obligation was not actually providing spiritual nourishment to all these people. So many are desperate for authentic, real spiritual nourishment without the BS of the establishment church.
The church of the 1950s has failed. It is already gone, and if we try to keep it alive, then we are like the disciples who tried to tell Jesus that he would ride in and restore the Kingdom of David.
Then, we will miss the new work God is doing, and we will continue to fail to meet the desperately hungry people in our midst.
Now, I am two things: an Episcopalian and a church professional. So, I rely quite sincerely on the reality of an establishment that is the church in the USA. I rely on this for salary, health insurance, pension–all those good things that people (ought to) get from a life’s work in the United States. And, I love the traditional and ancient model of worship in the Episcopal Church. When done authentically, I think it is profound and meaningful.
I don’t think that we should advocate for the disbanding of the mainline protestant church. What I am saying is that we don’t get to rely on the “just because” model anymore. I’m saying that we’ve failed in our ability to explain why we do what we do in such a way that connects people to God.
Now we actually have to–authentically–feed people spiritually, emotionally, and physically to earn our keep in our society. Just like everyone else, we have to justify our existence. We can’t expect to hold a position in society if we don’t actually do what we say we’re about.
The establishment church is failing, but “The Church” is not dying. We are people who tell the new story of God, people who make space for God to work through us, people who listen for God’s call. This is who we say we are. If we, as church people, live out the story of resurrection and God’s love, as the people 2,000 years ago did, then the new ministry of God will take place, and we can build communities that respond to God’s call and spiritually nourish people.
We can practice communion, create just community, and authentically live into our ancient traditions while encountering God’s work to create new ones. We are able to do this, but it is hard work. We can transcend the failings of a church that was relying on “just because” for too long. We can fulfill our original purpose and help people know the God who knows them.
This is possible. People are hungry for it. We just have to step up and tell the story of resurrection. It’s out there. Churches all throughout the country are doing profoundly good work: bread ovens and community gardens, and Godly Play, and interfaith iftars, and protest marches and–it goes on and on and on.
God will do new work through a failing establishment church, just like God did new work through a dead Messiah.
So just stop whining and get real. We are not dying, and we do not have to fail.