The church is not dying. It’s failing. There’s a difference.

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.

Continue this thought. Read the next post on resurrection.  

134 thoughts on “The church is not dying. It’s failing. There’s a difference.”

  1. How does someone who claims to “work in the church” claim that Jesus’s ministry was a failure, in any way, sense, or form? Please. Jesus was sent to atone for our sins and that required his death, and the manner of his death was precisely orchestrated, not by the Romans but by God Himself.

    1. Noah, I’d point you to Acts 1:6-9. The disciples are still clueless about Jesus’ real role as Messiah even as he is ascending into heaven. They still think that the role of the Messiah is to rid the Israelites of the Romans, and restore the kingdom to its former glory. In their eyes, not God’s eyes, Jesus “failed” to do this. This is because Jesus was not the Messiah that they wanted, but instead the Messiah that God wanted. It isn’t until later that they finally start to get it and preach differently. It took the Holy Spirit to fill their hearts before they were able to truly begin to preach the Good News, the story that the Messiah had actually come to suffer along side us, as we suffer, so that we may be made whole: that the Messiah had truly come to end the cycle of violence and teach us how to love.

      1. For me, just for me, Jesus was not well understood by Saul/Paul. Paul wanted and institution and Jesus created a fellowship….two different things. Plus, look at a LOT of what the church says and it quotes Paul, not Jesus. We have been Pauline Christians for too long and need to get back to being disciples of Jesus. I bet if a church focused solely on the teachings of Jesus for one year, it would look radically different. We have to decide if that is a good thing or a bad thing..

        1. Interesting thoughts, Leigh! I wonder, a lot, how Paul and the original church were related. About their conversations and their arguments. I imagine so much was not recorded in writing and passed down to us.

        2. I think you need to re-read Paul. Unless you’re reading a completely different Bible…

          If you look at all Paul wrote less than 10% is about the Church as an institution. It is way more about theology and fellowship- even when he does write about what you call “institution” he is really just instructing people about how to get along with each other. Whether he is talking about eating (Romans 14 and 1 Corinth. 8) or talking about sin, the emphasis is on how we respond to one another.

          As far as Pauline Christians- I’ve only ever met a few. Mostly because very few Christians really READ the Bible or pay attention to what it says.

          Most of what the church is today has way more to do with culture and tradition (Catholic, Reformer, Protestant, etc).

          1. Yes, and people have to remember to take the Bible in context, which requires learning about the culture and times in which it was written. Paul’s writings were to specific congregations about issues they were encountering. That has to be taken into account when studying the Bible (as a whole).

    2. I don’t think she said that Jesus’ ministry WAS a failure. She said that it was PERCEIVED as a failure…at the time, by his friends and followers who didn’t understand his true ministry. It could have easily ended there, but for the “few crazies” that told and retold the story. And here we are today.

    3. There is a big difference between “was perceived as a failure” and “was a failure.” The story of humanity is replete with times when we failed to see as God sees and therefore perceived that God had failed in his promise. It is not God who has failed it is we who have failed in our understanding.

      1. In fact she did say that! In the paragraph before she said that it was “perceived”. But then with the next paragraph it is stated pretty flatly that it was a failure. She wrote: “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.”

        I would grant that she may have meant that that sentence was meant to reflect a perception and that she expressed it poorly. But you notice in her response to Noah that she did not raise the obvious problem was that she did not express herself clearly. That paragraph does not say that the Disciples thought, or that Israelite’s of the time thought.

        Personally I think that this is one of the biggest problems of the church. They can’t seem to admit that they make mistakes and are not clear or say things incorrectly. The dialog falls away into your reading comprehension is the problem. Which certainly can be true, but not in this case. When those in the church can’t dialog with those in the church or out of the church the churches mission is damaged.

        Ultimately I did not see any solutions in the article. It is very easy and popular to point to the failure in the church or the need for revival etc. The reason of course is that it will always be true to criticize or condemn the church for her numerous failures. But what to do about those failures is a far more important subject.

        1. Hi Ron,
          If you have ideas, dude, you let me know. I’m still trying to figure them out, too. I would say that I’m working on a follow-up post that is about the resurrection church.

          And–yes, I was unclear. I was being dramatic. Your assessment is fair.

          1. I also work in the church and agree that we have failed. I think one thing is that we need to remember to separate worship and evangelism. Those who are not mature in the faith, and especially those who are completely new to the faith cannot possibly be expected to be able to worship or learn in the same capacity as those who are mature! Many will need to be evangelized in a much different way. They cannot understand the language and liturgy until they are taught or have had enough interest to study on their own. In most churches over the past 60 years the normal thing to do is invite new people to worship. We measure our success in membership and worship attendance, therefore we try and use it as the primary tool to evangelize. I don’t claim to know the answers, but I sincerely believe we must find a way to separate the two. Does this even make sense to anyone other than myself? I may just be way off base!

        2. Ridiculous! ! To comprehend reading you have to to see what is inferred by the context, the genre, the intended audience, the bigger picture – knowing who is speaking for example! Your comments sound as though you are looking for a reason to criticise – which is exactly what puts people off church.

          1. That is interesting, the day after Maggie admits she was not clear in the article I am accused of being ridiculous and my motives are determined for me by someone who does not know me at all. So Fiona in a written article one should not be causing people to infer anything, that is what clear writing tries not to do.

            “verb: deduce or conclude (information) from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements.”

            As for ideas, I don’t know the situation of your denomination. Personally I think the biggest problem with most Christian churches is their assumption of Penal Substitutionary atonement. As it separates God from God. In that God the Father demands a payment, the death of His Son who is also God so that God can Forgive. Even when the entire Bible and the words of Jesus show that forgiveness does not require someone paying a penalty so that someone else…or all someone’s can be forgiven. It places Jesus as showing love and the Father demanding a rather twisted kind of Justice. What happens when you learn to rethink Penal Substitution changes everything. I have an article on it at:

            It would be nice if the church’s failings were cured by taking care of the poor, that is a good start but does not require a church for that, other organizations can do that, the church should additionally deal with spiritual nature and it is really made harder by a view of God that is irrational to educated people.

    4. Noah, If from day one Jesus were sent to die for our sins it would make his teachings and miracles totally unnecessary. Only a few believed he was special and none believed he was sent by God. His death was the culmination of his thirty some years of trying to bring the “chosen” to believe in “One God”. Since that didn’t happen, Jesus died for ALL MANKIND’S SINS. He gave us the Holy Spirit that would open the eyes of all those who would let it in. When you believe you will be saved.

        1. NO. Only those who repent of their sins and accept Jesus as their saviour and with the Holy Spirit’s help seek to obey and serve God. These days few people do that.

        2. Yes, eventually. it will take a looooooong time, but then God has no trouble with time.
          I think Jesus was doing his best to say we are already in heaven if we just love each other and get on with it.

    5. Noah, I’m sorry to say that this narrow penal substitution view is one reason why non Christians are not attracted to the church.

    6. He doesn’t say it was a failure! It looked like a failure when Jesus was crucified! This points to resurrection! ! Read it again!

    7. The Christian church is failing and/or dying precisely because the central tenet of Christianity, vicarious redemption, is now rejected by all rational free-thinking people. If a truly omnipotent, loving creator of the universe wanted to forgive mankind of some “sin” then He/it would have said “you’re forgiven”! The whole virgin-birth, crucifixion, dying for 3 days and then returning to heaven, story, may have been believable by primitive and gullible people… but not now – and never again!

      1. Your point of view, which as a practicing Christian offends me, is one of opinion, not fact, and yet you say it like it is the truth. You have no idea if the resurrection is true or not. Your opinionated judgment of someone else’s faith is no better than a Christian who condemns non-believers instead of loving them. I am neither primitive or gullible, and I’ll choose to overlook your mean statement and hope and yes, pray, that someday you see the hand of Christ in your life and that some Christian here on earth shows you in deeds that Jesus is Lord. The organized church in the U.S. may need to regroup but Christians around the world are growing in numbers, much to the anger of ISIS and other groups. Don’t kid yourself. Maybe stop being so angry and just let others be… Peace out.
        Love from a rational, free-thinking Christian.

      2. God did say “you are forgiven” (on the cross) and it wasn’t vicarious it was extremely personal. Having a Christian faith, or any faith, is not about being rational, it is about BEING and if all you use in life is rational thinking then no wonder you simply fail to understand the strength of stories and human experience. Life is much more complex and glorious than rational freethinking.
        What on earth is primitive in the 21st century anyway? Much of what has been called primitive in past centuries has proven to be totally sensible and so much knowledge has been lost because of the attitudes of those who saw everything as having to bow down to rational free thinking.

    8. This is such a meaningless response because you have missed his point: through what we perceive as failure comes God’s victory. We need to re-define what it means to succeed, not by worldly terms but God’s. His comments are about us and what we haven’t done, not about Jesus and what he did.

  2. I thought I was failing my church by reaching out to the unchurched and volunteering outside the “respectable” organizations. Instead, the church failed me and ousted me when I questioned my “pastors” prejudism and mistreatment of others – including his own wife and family! I would love to find a church that met my needs – but instead I have turned to Christ directly to meet my needs!!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Karen. I’m sorry to hear that your church treated you that way. I hope you are able, in the future, to find a community that helps you realize your call. I always believe that we are called in community, so I hope you are able, wherever you are, to find a community (or even start one!) where you can follow Christ together.

    2. I cry for you and your church experience.Please find a congregation that is loving and caring which is doing outreach to the hungry outcast masses. A congregation that is showing the unconditional love of God to those who are on the outside. You will be the hands and feet of our Lord..

    3. Karen, I’m sorry you came from a church that treated you that way. I hope you find one that doesn’t, and embodies, even if in a broken way, Christ in the world. It’s hard to be a Christian by yourself. We need the greater body, to support us in our walk, to keep us accountable, and lift up a vision of what we can be. It may take a redefining of what “church” is – Jesus said that, where two or three are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of them. Find a few Christians who can be “church” to you. You will go through times of discouragement, when you need to feel God’s hands through human hands; or times when you get off-track, when you need an honest voice to bring you back. That is what the church is for. God bless your walk!

    4. I think that we might all be called in community but we aren’t all meant to stay there. My current totem spirit is Paul – who kept walking out of community (sometimes, like me, under duress). I do amazing a fruitful spiritual work, I actually say in real conversations I am a “professing Christian,” and while I do what the church called pastoral care, I do this with people who would never step foot in a church. Everyone deserves that, regardless of their desire to sit indoors on a Sunday or ability to hear someone say “God loves you.” (which is also a pretty hurtful thing to say)

      Hang in there Karen, you aren’t wrong or broken because you can’t do church community. It might just be that it isn’t where you belong and it is ok if you never do.

    5. I have had some really horrible experiences at all kinds of churches, People pushing people down to slay them , holding their heads down and telling them to speak three words until God gives them the gift of tongues. Telling me that I must submit to my abusive husband, he is the man, when he was dealing drugs, using drugs, drinking and being abusive in many serious ways. I have had a elder refuse me a gas card so I could get home from Christmas service. Then When I told the pastor I have no gas to get home he sent him to get me one. Faced racism in one church, people using the n word. Wow, over and over, I should say so they are failing, cause they are not full of the Holy Spirit and are doing evil. I am ashamed of them who call themselves Christians and leaders. Wolves in sheeps clothing is what I see.

    6. Lucy
      So sorry to hear, Karen, you had such a bad experience. Our church community is very loving and we welcome all who come through our doors. Our pastor would never, ever do what you have experienced. I pray you find a fellowship of Christians with whom you can share your faith and serve Our Lord, Jesus Christ soon.
      God Bless you.

  3. Excellent post Maggie! I wish I could “like” it 1000 times. I just wrote a blog post on control in the church that touches on these same themes. God is at work in the failing church. I had a conversation with a high-ranking clergy member in Finland today. I asked the clergy member why change wasn’t happening if everyone had consensus that change was needed. The clergy member responded by saying that it was happening – at the congregation level. It’s how change has always happened. Not waiting for change to happen from up above. In that statement I was reminded of all the great things going on in the church, just like your post here – another clear sign that things are changing. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! Yes, I’d agree–at the congregational level people change and move forward. I hope more and more congregations feel empowered to do so as the conversation on the role of the church continues.

  4. Thank you! As a pastor seeking and trying to respond to the spirit’s call to transformation, I am often challenged by the church for my style of ministry. I needed this today. Grateful…

    1. Janet,

      I usually spend some part of Sunday eating with people – breakfast at my house or dinner with other friends. We don’t do “proper liturgy” but we do the eat and support each other parts quite well.

      (For my theology, I have some great friends on facebook. We just started a book group on Stringfellow – which reminds me, I should get reading. lol)

  5. ECc ellen post, quick edit and or question. Why use GLTB instead of LGTBQ? Thanks again for the thoughtful post.

    1. During a mission and identity meeting during which priests and church vestry spoke both AGAINST and IN FAVOR of gay marriage ceremonies and/or blessings, a Baptist woman at our table asked what GLBTQ stood for. I told her to ask the man who would be speaking the next week. I knew GLBT, but not Q, and he replied, “Queer.”

  6. The church is not dying, but it is getting smaller. That’s okay. It isn’t just that the church is failing, large numbers of people are not God-oriented and are not about to be. The trends are not something that will be corrected when the church starts succeeding where it has failed before. The church is headed to the fringe of society, or even to the catacombs, and that is a good thing. It will find power, energy, renewal and reformation there.

    Thank you for a provocative and hopeful essay.

    1. “The trends are not something that will be corrected when the church starts succeeding where it has failed before. The church is headed to the fringe of society, or even to the catacombs, and that is a good thing. It will find power, energy, renewal and reformation there.” I think I agree with you!

      1. I think you are correct, the Church has for too long been trying to keep up with the popular culture, trying to make the church relevant This is not the job of the Church, God is always relevent, we just need to listen to and follow the Holy Spirit where it leads us and the Church.

  7. TEC has FAILED to truly preach the Gospel and to disciple generations of Episcopalians. I know I was one of them! Never went to Sunday School. No VBS in my childhood. NOPE. However, if numbers are our measure then the church is indeed *DYING* slowly and painfully. Truthfully, I would say that the church is being DESTROYED from within by those who want to turn – not back to the 1950s or even the 1960s which were the *apex* of member numbers for TEC and other mainline denominations but to the *Spirit of the Age* which includes deceptions and lies being portayed as Gospel Truth. That is the biggest problem the church faces currently- deceptions and lies being promoted as Gospel truth. As for the Resurrection, there are many bishops in TEC who deny the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. YIKES. IMVHO, First the church failed to teach and preach the Gospel which started the death spiral many are in today and NOW are searching for a new *TRUTH* to proclaim which is more in line with the Spirit of the Age. IOW, TEC is dying for two reasons 1) a failure to teach, preach and proclaim the Gospel and 2) whole hearted embrace of the culture and spirit of the age. The failure to teach and preach the Gospel is the root cause IMVHO. The Social Justice-ification of the church just ain’t working! Wakeup and smell the coffee! Before it is too late!

      1. The Gospel truth is what is written throughout Scripture as translated through the many voices of Christendom. Trust God, even if you do not feel ‘Called” or special, help those around who need help-without judgement or expectation, pray as you can for every one including animals and plants..( pray for the Creation and Created, to the Creator, asking for insight and ways to be active in your Thanksgiving, show Gratitude to all-speak Christ to Power ( not Truth- that is too vague)-be in Communion with your parish or mission, even if when you quit your job due to cancer and find that your church did not take a portion of your check for disability insurance- so there fore you have to rely on social security or ssi and the family is put under financial hardship because the church has an exemption and is not required by state law to provide disability for the employee ( happened to my wife)..Instead of f— the church I hold the church dear..take a proactive stance.. Yours in Christ,
        Brewster Bird

  8. i can relate to the “just because”. I’m 58 years old and up until 3 months ago was firmly ensconced in the Lutheran tradition.
    Back in the late 80’s in a Church that shall remain anonymous; I was told by one of the members of the Church Council that “we can do anything we want to them because they have to come here”.
    Two things:
    1) That is so horribly wrong an attitude for a believer in Christ on so many levels that I would need an entire server to explain why.
    2) An example from a Minister that was one of my teachers before I became a Commissioned Deacon. The Word of God is like milk in a glass; it is perfectly acceptable to change the container as long as you do not alter the contents.
    The modern traditional churches situation is that it holds on to the Bible with a firm grip, that it resists change at all costs. Instead of remembering that our Mission is to spread The Word to any who would listen. Another remark by the same teacher…”church is for the Visitor not for the Member”. If your Visitor Book had cobwebs on it…it’s time to shift your paradigm.

  9. Well said! Thanks for calling out the entitlement so often seen in church people.
    Actually showing up and feeding people physically, emotionally,and spiritually from our authentic selves may or may not help us to earn our keep, but it’s the only way I’ve been able to manage to keep my heart open and grow in compassion through the hard times. Keep inviting and encouraging people to know that God knows, loves, and wants us to flourish.

  10. People are hungry to experience Christ in a positive, meaningful, & in a modern way hearing that Jesus loves them, forgives them, & gives them hope & a future. It wasn’t until after I was basically kicked out of a denominational church b/c I hadn’t attended, communed, or had given an offering in some time, that I really came to know & experience Jesus Christ! I’ve been going to a large non-denominational church in Houston for some time now, where worship comes alive & is very meaningful to me. Yeah sure, I’d rather go to a smaller church but you go where you’re fed! The ritualistic ho-hum music, & the predicatble nursery rhyme liturgy & prayers of the denoninational church where I previously attended was boring & meaningless to me! I don’t mean to offend anyone but a lot of churches today need to update & modernize if they want to draw & keep people in- especially the younger generations!.

  11. Maggie,

    This is a beautiful and deeply reflective piece that spoke to me on so many levels. Thank you. I will share that I am deeply churched: child of a pastor, raised in the church, active in the church until, well into adulthood, I just couldn’t anymore. I was tired of waiting for things to change. I was tired of looking to a day when we didn’t have to do it the old way. I was tired of the lgbtq struggles as an ally, and being told to wait. I felt exhausted, beaten down, and never nourished. Church was just a drain. So I left three years ago. Sad.

      1. Maggie, this is exceelent. I am a Presbyerian in a small progressive congregatioj in a very retro Missouri Synod part of town. The church does fail, in many ways. One is a theologythat teaches from 50 to 100 years ago, instead of embracing new methodology like Narrative Theology. Instead, we do Systematic, which is a form of academic proof-texting; we make up our minds and then force the text to support us, uinstead of examining what is in the text and interpreting it together. I wish you the ver best. I am a pal onf your mom.

  12. My issue with this essay is that it offers something of a cartoon picture of church life in the 50’s and 60’s, and presumes everybody was just going through the motions. Off the top of my head, here are a few things I remember from that era.

    -People who experienced their Sunday school teachers as mentors, committed, concerned adults who weren’t around for a few weeks when the duty fell to them, but who took their jobs as Sunday school teachers as serious work, indeed. Your Sunday school teacher might be the most important influence in your life.

    -Lay people who were reading theology and attending “lay academies” so they could engage the thought of Tillich, and Niehbur, and later Dr. King, Thomas Merton and other Christian voices of the era. The Rockefeller Fellowship sent some brilliant people to seminary who had no intention of becoming ministers, but left with a bit of theology under their belts, having richly enhanced their seminary communities. Fred Buechner started this way. Al Gore went to Yale Div on this program.

    -Art produced and consumed by thoughtful Christian people who assumed that Christian ideas were worth engaging. Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Graham Greene, Andy Warhol to name a few. Ellington, Coltrane, Brubeck. Cool Hand Luke. Church groups which met to discuss Ingmar Bergman.

    -Talented, engaged campus chaplains and university ministers. People like William Sloane Coffin and Howard Thurman.

    -Movements like Koinonia Farms — lots of us had copies of the Cottonpatch Gospels on our shelves –testimony to a vibrant interracial faith and justice community in Georgia. Church of the Savior in Washington DC. East Harlem Protestant Parish.

    Its just not the case that the whole picture was bankrupt, and that might tell us something about the future and its “wheat and tares.” Its also why some of us are sad about the church’s decline, even if we aren’t quite wringing our hands. Much of what we knew was precious and lifegiving. We trust in God’s future, but please don’t expect us to dance on the grave of all we knew. It will be hubris for the next generation to think it will succeed and the previous generation utterly failed.

  13. “God will do new work through a failing establishment church, just like God did new work through a dead Messiah.

    That is only half the story.

    “God did new work through a living Messiah.

    Without the latter there would be no new life for the sinner…

    I believe that much of the reason the church is failing is because God’s word to us -the Bible- is not held to, is not believed, is believed to be anachronistic, fails to march in step with current (modern) culture. The Bible is or isn’t God’s word to us, His Truth given to us. The Bible does not adjust to the mores of the times, rather gives us an anchor to hold fast to.

    I am an Anglican and in our town there is beautiful Episcopal church. It is always packed -with people who don’t believe the words they sing or the words they listen to. It is terrible. I love Anglicanism, its majesty and richness. But I had to leave and with my family we have joined a tiny Baptist church where the pianist misses notes and the singing makes my teeth grind, the service sometimes is a bit odd, BUT where the God’s Holy Spirit is truly ALIVE and where it is always a joy to be.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I would agree that we need a stronger, more comprehensive theology of the Bible. Liberal protestants have not been able to truly figure out how to Believe a Bible that was written thousands of years ago. I think we do ourselves a great disservice by ignoring the parts of the Bible that seem anachronistic to us. I think it is our mandate as faithful people to wrestle with all of the Bible, and come to know it as a friend. I do not think that this means we should blindly follow every proscription in the Bible, but we inauthentic to our faith by ignoring the pieces we don’t like.

      I’m glad you are feeling comfortable in your spirit-filled congregation.

  14. It is an interesting article. My only concern is that The Message (God becoming man and paying the penalty for our sins because of His great love for us – undeserving sinners) is lost as “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”. The church (believers) of the 50s which is referenced in this article – was the church that produced great revival through people who simply told The Message (for example – God used Billy Graham’s voice to bring to Him thousands upon thousands world-wide. What drew people to God – was simply God’s plan of redemption). The Church has to be careful that it doesn’t become simply another organization that does good works. The Church needs to stand on God’s Word, the Bible, pray for the ability to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. This love will propel us to share the Gospel, as that is what truly saves people. I pray that we as Christians will never forget, that God’s Word is powerful – it (not us) drives people to their knees.

    1. I would agree. Thanks for pointing that out. I think that we should be careful of just becoming another ‘Good works” organization–because that’s not what we are. We are a people of resurrection, who put our trust in the fact that God makes all things new. I do think that we need to cling to the beauty of the gospel story so that we can be truly Church and not just a nonprofit. Thanks for your thoughts.

  15. Hi Maggie
    Some great thoughts in there and really well written (and opinionated doesn’t seem to mean rude, so well done!). I am watching on from an outsider (Australian) perspective. So there is much to think through in this article.

    I would want to raise a mild protest (in light of Scott McKnight’s recent work) about the difference between “doing good” as Peter calls God’s people to do in the community, and the kingdom work that goes on within the church in the public name of Christ. You mention: “bread ovens and community gardens, and Godly Play, and interfaith iftars, and protest marches and–it goes on and on and on.” I am happy to be involved in such things, but would find that saying “Oh, by the way we do this because Jesus is King” would be viewed with deep suspicion, perhaps hostility even. Not that I would ever put if that baldly in the first conversation, however the biblical texts do distinguish between working alongside others for the common good and the work of the kingdom among the people of the king in the church (the eschatological new “land”).

    So my question: In your framework you present do you see these undoubtedly good things as kingdom work or simply good works that we do in the community? It sounds a little turgid I know to make the distinction on the surface, but my observation about church life in Oz (which may be the case in the USA too?) is that the mainlines are, as they decline, shifting focus away from what goes on among the gathered Christian community that is fed on Word and Sacrament (or not!) and now using the nomenclature of “kingdom” to describe social justice work that often never intersects with the gathered worshipping community. I’d be interested how you view that and how you would respond to McKnight’s fairly robust and (I think) convincing argument that this hides the ecclesiastical problem rather than solves it.

    1. Yes, a million times yes. This is kingdom work and we are loosing our credibility because we are afraid of saying that. You notice some hesitation on my part in saying that because it is indeed there–I don’t exactly know how to say that without words that are hurtful. Kingdom and “Jesus is King” are words that have been used to abuse others in the past, and for a super-liberal American, these can seem like fighting words of a very different caliber. So–yes, that is what I’m talking about, but I don’t exactly know how to talk about it in a way that isn’t already so damaged that it undoes the work in the minds of outsiders.

      I hope this makes sense to you. Thank you for your response, and let’s continue to talk on this matter. You’ve helped me think through a number of things.

  16. I would say that another failing of the church is in assuming that it is the only place where people can learn to be adult in their faith. Religion is not the only avenue to exploring faith spirituality and the nature of God, but often it is presented that way. The failure of the church should not, in my opinion, be couched in the idea that it failed to properly educate the new generations, but rather, like you said, in the idea that it did/does not demonstrate its value to the community and younger generations.

  17. I’ve been saying this for quite some time. In fact I’ve been trying to get someone on the House of Bishops/Deputies list to post my kibitzer’s email on the subject that The Episcopal Church doesn’t need bigger and more elaborate programs or structures.

    What it needs is to come out of denial and face up to fact that most of us in TEC’s pews are selfish people who do not do the hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves but rather rest on the coattails of the national church and pat ourselves on the back as if we did it ourselves.

    What we need to do, at the very least, is start looking out for each other in our own parish. We tend to be rather famously known for our territoriality in the pews. So when we exchange the Peace, surely we get to recognize the people in front of, next to, behind, and possibly even just across the aisle from us.

    Seems to me the least we could do when that person doesn’t show up on a Sunday is to give a call, let them know we missed them, ask if everything is ok and are they in any need. Yes, horrors! We risk getting involved. Maybe that person doesn’t need anything. Maybe that person does. Maybe you can or can’t meet that need. But if you can’t, then you refer that person, or better yet, make the cal yourself to the person at church who can.

    Seems to me if we just simply took care of the people in our pews at this moment, we would soon have so many people in the pews that our churches wouldn’t be able to hold them all. Then imagine what would happen if we took such hospitality beyond those walls?

    1. The good news is that people are seeking God and many going to the source of the teachings of our Master.
      And it’s not like your institutions of men with your inward focus on your aging clique has not had any positive impact. The air conditioning and elevator industries have benefited making your structures more marketable.

  18. THANK YOU! Well said and on the mark. As a hospital chaplain fully 30% of the people who come in to our hospital don’t declare a church home. at admission … yet only maybe 3% will tell me they don’t pray or love God. For one reason or another – and those cross the spectrum – they have lost their ties to a church, if they even ever had them, and generally don’t see a need to reestablish them.

  19. When I was at Seminary back in 1999, the Catholic monk who instructed us on Catholic theology asked us to have an open mind about ministry. Ministry is not in a building with a specific holy book or a specific religious teacher. Ministry is knowing the love and joy of God and gently, kindly, softly sharing that joy with others. I don’t serve at a church or religious job. I pray and meditate every day and bring my peace and joy to all whom I meet. Are church jobs becoming obsolete?

  20. Maggie, we hear you! This is a good piece. I chatted via Twitter with the Pew Research staff about the article. Sometimes I think we are gathering information related to wrong questions. The NONES actually have a God. We all do. Im convinced Paul Tillich’s “The New Being” is more relevant than when first printed over 50 yrs ago. Everyone has an “ultimate concern” and that is GOD according to Tillich. Personally I’m not sure the millennialis are all that “spiritual” or “religious”. They want God on their own terms when it is convenient. I don’t see passion for mission. I don’t see determination and persistence. I see a generation wanting an easy time with God. I see a generation profoundly impacted and at the same time hurt by the TV show “Friends” and the Clinton/Lewinsky story. Few us know how to handle the info bombardment we are exposed to on a daily basis and the more people try to get it… The more frustrating it gets! And all the while I’m trying real hard not to be the Pharisee clergy person. Trust that. But I think you are right about the failing vs dying aspect. My 1950’s church is gone. And we are all in a new time of the Spirit and if we all take time to see what the church was up to in the first three centuries of Christianity, then there is some hope. -Brian

  21. Hi Maggie. What a thoughtful and accurate assessment! Here is what I just posted on Paula’s Facebook about it.

    Wow! Excellent observations and well-communicated! I think she is right on all counts. In a way Maggie’s comments remind me of the following true story from friend. He had gone back to his college church in a small town for a visit after 30 or 40 years. He remembered it as a thriving, large institution. The church and college were related to the same fairly small Protestant denomination. It was a big deal church with community and college leaders galore. So he was amazed at how few attendees showed up for Sunday morning worship. He commented to his friend about how sad that the church seemed to be dying. His friend was surprised and explained his take on it. “We are not dying! We are the community of faith I always hoped we would develop into! Our members now are here to be the church, and not to make business contacts or find dating relationships. We are here to serve and love.” I am not happy to see fewer folks in worship and fewer identifying as faithful, active Christians. But I am convinced with Maggie that people are still ready to be welcomed and challenged to be the church!

    1. Wow! It is so good to hear from you! Hope all is well!! And I definitely agree, people want to be welcomed and challenged to be the church in powerful ways! The church, however, does need to challenge them!

  22. Thanks for this, Maggie! The other important thing about ‘failing not dying’ is that some people use ‘dying’ in a positive sense. They look at the death and resurrection of Christ and say that the church must die in order to be reborn. They identify – as you do – the need for a certain type of complacent/respectable church to ‘die’ in order for us to re-encounter the urgency of the Gospel, but that leads to a new kind of complacency in which serious self-criticism and repentance doesn’t feature.

    One thing this does illustrate though is the difference between the US and UK situation, in that you assume most young people have experienced church. We are a whole generation or two further down the line.

  23. I’m speaking as woman and a former Catholic who is now atheist or at the very least, humanist. I broke from the church many years ago, for several reasons. As I’m in my 50’s now,I’m not looking to go back, but wanted to offer some perspective. BTW, this is an excellently written opinion and I think you said many things well.

    What the church doesn’t understand, from my perspective, is that many people don’t feel safe there. We know we are “breaking the rules” as followers, even if others don’t know we are. We are using birth control, we are supporting our friends of faith and non-faith who may be members of the LGBT community, we are cutting our hair, we are wearing pants, we are dancing, we are drinking, we tell untruths, we are having sex before/outside of marriage, we are divorcing and remarrying, we eat ham and bacon, we shop on Sundays, we skip services for various reasons that may not be quite appropriate… I can continue with this list, but you probably get the idea. As a Catholic and a woman on hormonal birth control, how do I justify those two things? I do not submit to my husband, that is not our way, and my husband is not head of our household for reasons that make sense to us. I’ve been divorced, I’ve remarried. I’ve had sex outside of marriage. How can I be a good Catholic woman if I do not follow the rules?

    And does all of this make me hedonistic and selfish? According to the church, it does. Yet I live a happy, moralistic life. I do not do anything that will harm another. I give generously to many causes. I teach my children to be careful with their words and actions, and to not participate in racial, religious, or sexual persecution. I am a good person, doing good deeds every day. I have a very live and let live attitude. I don’t wave my beliefs in anyone’s face or publish it in signs on my front lawn. I care about everyone around me, care about the world, and live by the Golden Rule. Even so, I cannot pass muster under this “God” you tout, or at least, under the rules his followers have published.

    Instead, we have a lot of judging going on (something that the bible explicitly tells us is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS). We have unbelievable persecution of non-Christians in many forms – Christian charity often bans assisting those who don’t happen to be Christian, and we have Christians shoving their religion in our faces, as if that is how they will get into heaven. We have people barred from being married or holding jobs or living their lives because they “aren’t following the rules.”

    So much of my upbringing was like hearing two different sermons. First, love your neighbor, accept your neighbor, be charitable, take care of others, be a good person. Second, those that don’t attend our church/follow our rules are going to go to Hell. These two things CANNOT EXIST TOGETHER. You must pick one. Which will you choose?

    I choose to be a good person, avoid at all costs harming another individual, forgiving those that wrong me (within reason), taking care of my environment, and treating people with respect. I choose the former, not the latter. Churches need to take a serious look at what they are preaching and espousing, if they want to lure back the members they have lost. I don’t see that change coming, unfortunately, which is a sad, sad thing.

  24. Dear Maggie,
    I’m in charge of church growth in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, and I really appreciate your post. You capture the situation beautifully. All of my work is based on the idea that unless we’re authentic, mature Christians ourselves we can’t hope to grow (it’s based on the idea that you can’t give away something you don’t have). In other words, our future health and strength are all about authenticity – showing the evidence of a loving God in Jesus Christ by changed lives and loving service. Will it work? Who knows? But the journey will be so much better than obsessing about our imminent demise.
    Canon Rob Droste, Diocese of New Jersey

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Rob! I appreciate hearing from you. And yes–I definitely do not want to be obsessing about our imminent demise. We have a job to do, which is significantly more positive.

  25. Maggie, as a PCUSA pastor I both agree and disagree. The Church is failing, after all, it is a human institution. But it is also dying, just like all humans do, and it isn’t just a passive death, many are active, serving, loving. Yet in the developed world our need for, and appropriation of faith has not progressed as science, technology, economics and politics has. And so many of our local expressions of the Church will die. And that is okay, because our God specializes in resurrection.
    But not on our terms. Our dogmas, creeds, liturgies, traditions as well as those of other streams of Christianity, will likely die. The craziness of our debates between transubstantiation and symbolism, the historical Jesus v. the Jesus of american theology, etc., in light of all who live and die daily to hunger and disease, racially motivated killings… cannot stand.
    I read of preachers and churches proclaiming money and success, humiliating women, children, people of non-white birth and ultimately denigrating God, and when have our leaders, Bishops, Elders, Assemblies spoke out condemning them? I have little hope for “our” church, but firm hope in God in recreating, dare I say re-imagining, the Church.

  26. Having read the excellent article and all the posts I would like to offer a beacon of hope. Not one single poster has talked about growing churches that effectively meet the hunger that people have for God today. I live in Hong Kong and over the last 23 years have attended in two churches – one Anglican and the other non-denominational, and . . .


    St Andrews is a 100+ yr old Anglican (Episcopal) church – one of the oldest in Hong Kong. It has just built a huge new auditorium under its car park to accommodate MORE believers. It has a full-time staff that marshall a huge number of volunteers that run all kinds of small groups and local outreach and care programmes to help people understand their faith, meet each others needs and reach out into the community. The word of God is preached and lived out, and . . . more people come to be fed. I met my wife there in 2006 at a marriage preparation class for singles based on Selwyn Hughes videos from the 1980s!

    Island Evangelical Community Church is 10 yrs old. A plant from a missionary-led church that met in a YMCA it now has 3500 attendees that meet on five floors of an office tower, and a new plan to make space available for twice as many in five years. Once again a large staff supports a much larger group of volunteers in all kinds of activities based on living out the word of God. It has fellowship groups for men, women, singles, divorcees/widows, domestic helpers, and even a dragon boat racing club – the Ark -that will put six boats on the water today as a Christian presence in a sporting event that has transcended the pagan festival that spawned it.

    Both congregations include billionaires and paupers and send out 20-30 mission trips per year. Both run courses to teach apologetics so that the congregation can present their faith in a cynical and somehow simultaneously credulous world. Both donate a portion of tithes to Christian causes in HK and elsewhere. Neither would dream of turning away someone for being LGBT (or Q), and both regularly have baptism services for 20-30 new believers. Both, of course have problems too, but the bottom line is that the growth is organic – people come because they hear the gospel preached and see and can join in with it being worked out in the lives of the congregation.

    In this corner of the world at least our church is neither failing nor dying.

    1. Beautiful news!
      And yes, one thing we forget over here in the USA/UK/Europe is that in the REST of the world, the church is booming. And so one of our ways to not fail is to look at what’s happening across the world, and make space for Christians from elsewhere to feel comfortable in our congregations.

  27. Yes in many ways the established church is dying and it deserves to do so – GBLT issues, gay marriage, women priests, child abuse, dishonesty, single parents, living together before marriage all so everyday for the average citizen all remains shocking and in need of correction in churches stuck firmly in the past.

    Why would anyone of us in any of those situations attend a church to receive judgement, recrimination and even be ostracised by those holier than thou individuals who seem to know nothing of God’s great love and tenderness towards his people!

    I am in my seventies and feel sorrow everyday for the cruel behaviour of many so called Christians who bring the true nature of God into disrepute. Who are we to judge – it was never our remit. We are to love and to cherish God’s people without prejudice and perhaps a new movement will rise embarrassing that which is good and empathetic leaving Churches as we know them to be consigned to history..

  28. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this article, and for the follow up article as well. Maggie, I thought you were spot on. I am a longtime member of a small church located in a small town. We do a lot of good things in the community; free community dinners, bread drops, free clothing store, vacation bible school, trunk or treat, community Christmas baskets, Easter egg hunt, etc..There are many ways we serve the people in our area and the church building is considered a community asset (weddings, funerals, scouts, etc..). I would say that non-members use the church as much if not more than members do.

    Yet over the past few years the church has declined in membership and struggled financially. I understand that this is not unique to my church, and see many, many other small churches dealing with the same issues. The same dedicated few doing the majority of the planning and organizing activities can be daunting and overwhelming.

    I have been thinking in recent months that perhaps, despite the good works being done, that my church is “dying”, but after reading your article and the many comments posted by others, I think it is more accurate to say that our church is failing. The question and challenge then is what to do about that…what specific steps can be taken RIGHT NOW to turn things around and revitalize the church?

    1. Hi Kathy,
      Thanks for your response!!
      Your church sounds like an amazing place where powerful ministry happens on a daily basis. I speak from a place with lots of experience with Urban churches, which I realize are in a very different position from many small-town churches. I think in small towns, the demographic makeup is changing considerably as well–which often affects the church even though the church has nothing to do with it. Like, it’s hard to attract more people when people are leaving town for the city–there are actually *less* people around.

      I think for some people what can be very painful is the realization that they have to start behaving like a smaller church–it can be powerful ministry to be open all the time, and doing a lot of things, and be a real stronghold in the community. And it is okay to grieve the loss of that kind of model. It is very painful to lose that, but I think grieving it and letting it go is less of a failure than trying to sustain it and just sucking at it for another 10 years. This burns people out and turns a church community into a place of scarcity rather than abundance.

      So much about the ministry of the church is being a place where abundance can be known. So, I’d ask two questions: What is your church able to do with an attitude of abundance? And, what is the thing that your community deeply needs that your church must do?

      To look at those questions in an inverted way, you could ask: What ministry here is burnt out and only talks about the scarcity of volunteers, needs, and time? And, What do you do that your community truly needs, and another organization doesn’t do?

      I would suggest a book called The Agile Church by Dwight Zscheile. I respect his work a lot and I think your church could benefit from it. He is very good about helping churches understand how to listen to their communities to see what they are truly called to, especially in a moment when they must shift from a “big church” attitude to a “small church” attitude. Or, perhaps to look at it like this: “THE community church” attitude to “A community church” attitude.

      Anyway, peace to you and I wish you and your church well.

  29. And what about Scripture? Are we to bend it and redefine it so that we can revitalize the Church? I think the United Methodist Church is becoming more about getting bodies in the door rather than preaching from God’s holy, inspired Word that does not bend to suit mainstream sin. Love the sinner, but hate the sin……

  30. I was challenged a few years back by a Pastor of the Korean Presbyterian Church. To read the entire bible from Genesis to Revelation during the period of lent. I have done that then and make a point to do it every year. I have done it 8 times.

    I have come up with 2 things every person that claims to be a follower of Christ must know (dead certain) 1. Who God is. 2. Who you are in that relationship..

    Solving that. There are 4 questions we need to get the real answers to.

    Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
    The question is: What was on God’s mind when He did this?

    Question 2: What was Jesus’ mission?

    Question 3: What was Jesus’ message?

    Question 4: Why did Jesus come when he did.?

    When the Church establishment answers these questions they will begin giving their congregants the Spiritual answers they seek.

  31. “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.”

    Perhaps this isn’t what you meant, but I will point out that at least some of us “nones” aren’t “nones” simply because we don’t like church, but because the notion of God — that is, any god, or spirituality, or other supernaturalism — is irrelevant and meaningless to us. I’m not going to denigrate your faith, and I don’t mean to be antagonistic, but don’t assume that because it’s important to you that there is any vestige of it in others, and that you just need to find the right language or point of reference. I’m sure that you’re right some of the time, but to at least a good portion of us, it’s just silly.

  32. I appreciate this article, and agree with the premise. Several thoughts run through my head as I process your ideas. First, with all the various non-mainline Christian churches around, we need to consider how we are defining the “church.” I think the Church today probably looks similar to the Church of the second or third century – a lot of independent bodies with no central governance and fractured theologies (not because of intentional heresies but because there was no accepted authority to correct errors). I serve as pastor of a United Methodist church. As I speak with non-denominational pastors I hear many of them touting the same theological tenets, yet they won’t affiliate with each other because they don’t like the 1) pastor of the “other” congregation, 2) don’t like the music/musicians/instruments used at the “other” congregation, 3) don’t like some doctrine/teaching. I speculate that over time some of these churches will come together and form denominations again just as a means of economy of effort. The mainline churches are entrenched in administration (creating reports that have little meaning about ministry but count people and money really well), and have shifted focus away from their visions of proclaiming the good news to the world to focus instead on how well VBS or Sunday School was organized. I find it interesting how many of the non-denominational churches are the hard-line conservative doctrines, yet people who are seeking Christian spirituality are not coming back to the mainline churches that desperately want to receive. Sadly, the mainline churches are part of the cause for that as we do better at being cliques and not warmly welcoming new persons. Lastly, a growing trend I am seeing in both mainline and non-denominational congregations is that of occupancy. What I mean is that the churches have people in them who want to occupy space bu are not moved to participate in the live of the congregation or the broader church. This is not a particularly new phenomenon, but the 20% that did 80% of the work is now older and fewer in number, so there really is not as much being done. The US culture that is all about self-gratification does not understand that church is not a provider of goods and services, but a community joined together by common belief and a desire to know more about the God they worship (or are seeking to be able to worship). This is where the churches are failing; we are not teaching about God; we are not building community and relationships; we are not enthusiastic about our love of God. The churches that are growing in numbers are excited about sharing their faith and inviting people into their midst. Praise God those communities exist. The important point of this article to is that even if we consider the church to be failing, we can be certain that God is not and God will bring people in once again.

    1. Thanks for your response! I think maybe, if I can tell from your comments, that a point of resurrection–and letting go–for you is to let go of some of those needless reports. 🙂 I know the UMC loves its reports–do you spend a lot of time on them?

  33. I find myself wondering how the church in the US differs from the (much less attended) church in Europe. Because in Europe, church attendance adds happiness and reduces depression, at least among adults 50+ (subject of cited study). And I’m not sure that churches are even effectively serving that age group in the US. Pastoring, welcoming, listening, humility, multigenerational community, significant ritual … I think in most places we’ve lost all of these as our churches have become more and more like our culture. It’s not about how big a church is or what specific “ministry offerings” it has. It’s just about whether people can talk to each other about our lives, the ways we please God and fail God, and can celebrate God together.

  34. I disagree with a couple of premises- firstly, the Protestant Evangelical Church (if all the denominations could be lumped together) is the single biggest source of charity all over the globe. People aren’t starved for an ability to serve- but their perceptions of service are skewed.

    This brings me to my second point- The American Church (the entire Western church for that matter) has been systematically removing theological study from the churches. Most Christians don’t even have a complete understanding of the Doctrine of Atonement let alone anything else. We read/teach scripture through Western lenses that are colored more by continental tradition rather than Scripture or church history. And we bicker and argue around what sin is than the other.

    In short, American Christianity is anemic. Devoid of the all the beauty that it once had. People are hungry because the few morsels they’ve had have left a bitter taste.

    1. The next couple articles in this series might be useful to you, then. I think we are definitely losing our hold because we don’t know our own faith well enough. Though–I would have to say that most THEOLOGIANS don’t have a full grasp on the doctrine of Atonement.

  35. Thanks for the article. I encourage you to reflect on the role declining birthrate among Mainline churches plays in the decline of the church. I recently asked a well know and respected commentator on the post Christendom, post denominational, post modern thinking, this question…Would Mainline writers be saying what they are saying about decline if our Mainline families were having six to eight children instead of one or two. She smiled and said no, we would not. Perhaps as much as 60% of our decline is related to decling birthrate. The other 40% is a matter of the cultural and social changes going on in the Western world.

  36. I believe that one of the main failings of today’s church is that pastors are taught in seminary to” dissect” the Bible. And by that I mean to give sermons on specific passages of the Bible, explaining what they believe to be their meaning.
    Some of the greatest sermons I have ever heard were given just as Jesus gave his in his time, they were given through parables. Parables allow people to see the everyday applications of the Bible in their daily lives, lessons they can use and relate to, not lofty explanations of Bible passages deeply steeped in theological terms and thoughts, as would be found in a seminary class. Please keep in mind, this is just my opinion.

    1. I think that makes a lot of sense. Unapproachable preaching is likely to have lots of consequences. Do you have good preachers that you look up to in this regard? Anything to help a baby-pastor start out on her way? 😉

  37. Found this a very interesting read – and just as much all the comments and responses! It gave me plenty to think about.

    Not least of all, it’s interesting to contrast the church’s situation in the U.S. compared to European and otherwise Western nations which, as someone has pointed out, are a couple of generations ahead and Christianity is now on the fringes rather than being the default. (I live in Australia and religious belief is certainly the exception rather than the norm here.)

    This obviously makes a very difficult environment to do Christian works in. If we openly proclaim our faith, we are ridiculed, or worse, seen as pushy or holier-than-thou. On the other hand, if we keep our heads down and just try to do the “right” thing, where is the light we’re shining? The saying “preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words” is heartening in theory – but sadly, it rarely works out that way.

    In saying that, we also face many of the same challenges within our churches. Even within welcoming, loving, faithful, Biblical, Spirit-led churches (I attend two and I’m very blessed in that), attendance becomes by and large a “family and friends” affair, familiarity breeds complacency and we run the risk of getting our spiritual lunch every Sunday, but never truly growing or being challenged in our faith.

    So to move on to the main question: is the church failing? Before we ask that question there’s a preceding one we need to answer, that being what is the church for? As much as some may disagree, I think the Bible makes it very clear (in Paul’s letters in particular) that the church is first and foremost for the building up of the community of believers in faith and unity. The church is the people of God, in everything together. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s what it boils down to.

    As a result of that collectiveness of the church, I believe that the biggest obstacle to the church is the aggressive individualism in 21st century Western society. The common wisdom of the day is tolerance and letting everyone go their own way, and that lends itself to a natural suspicion of anyone who tries to claim “absolute truth”, which the church does by definition. That, at the fundamental level, is why so many people forsake church or organised religion for individualised spirituality. They trust their own beliefs above any institutionalised doctrine, and in fairness, given some of the church’s history, it’s not hard to see why.

    So where does that leave us? We absolutely can’t do away with the church as an explicit community of people teaching and learning from each other and growing together in the faith. (It’s not impossible to be a lone wolf Christian, I suppose, but it’s certainly not advisable – nor does it help others.) What we can do, and in this I agree with you 100%, is be completely authentic in our faith, cutting away anything we do that is meaningless and done “just because”, and bringing things back to honest worship of God and love of people.

    Most churches – any of a decent size, really – can’t directly engage with everyone at a Sunday service. But many churches these days do much of their discipling in small groups (variously called by plenty of other names: “cell groups”, “home groups”, etc.) It’s much easier to engage with people one on one, hear and acknowledge their struggles with faith, and build them up through that in a group of only 5 or 10 people where everyone takes part in discussion, than in a congregation of 50 or more (sometimes many more!) where one person is preaching to the rest. Perhaps, in this society where the needs of the individual are paramount, small groups are the best way of connecting with everyone and helping them grow their personal faith within a wider body of believers. That would be my humble advice to a church whose members are stagnating or falling away, to put time and effort into creating or developing small groups.

    Before I finish, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on good works, loving people in need and evangelism, because these are all important works of the church. But I think if our eyes are on our works as evidence of how well (or otherwise) we are going as a church then we’re looking in the wrong place. To be sure, if our faith isn’t manifesting as works then something has gone seriously wrong. But the bottom line is that (like I’ve said) the church is first and foremost for building up the body of believers, and before we think about works, we must ask ourselves how are we going with that, and what can we do to get better?

    Finally, I’d be VERY remiss if I didn’t mention God’s role in all of this. The risk we always, always run when criticising or trying to reform the church is that we miss what God is doing, and try to make changes (with the best of intentions) in our own power, which invariably go astray. More than any strategies and plans we need to continually pray for God to anoint us with his Spirit of peace, guidance and power. Even with a (theoretically) engaging program and faithful teaching, a church will not bear fruit if it is trying in its own power and not through God’s, and on the other hand, even in a church as dysfunctional as many are these days, a single person abounding in the Spirit can do much good. To your conclusion, “God will do new work through a failing establishment church, just like God did new work through a dead Messiah”, I say a hearty Amen!

    Anyway, sorry for the essay. Or not so much an essay as a long, long stream of consciousness. I hope it was helpful, and if I’ve gotten something terribly wrong, please correct me 🙂

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