…On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
-Matthew 16:18-19 (NIV)
We hate to talk about it. It makes us feel somehow diminished. We know there’s a problem; after all, everyone says so. And yet we don’t know what to do about it.
“Why isn’t my church growing?”
First off, let me say that I know some churches are growing. If yours is, great. See if you can figure out why, and contribute something positive to the conversation. Only, don’t be cocky about it; whatever the reason, it’s probably not that all of you are better Christians/more spiritual/more devoted/smarter than the rest of us.
But if you related to my first paragraph, and you’ve heard the question asked in a Bible class or informal conversation, the next few posts here are for you. Because, whether we like to talk about it or not, lots of churches (American churches, at least) are struggling with that question: Why aren’t we growing? Everyone has a theory, usually revolving around the thesis that we just don’t care enough, we’re too comfortable, we’re too focused on pleasing ourselves over reaching out to others, or some other, similar character defect.
So we just don’t talk about it, because it makes us feel bad.
And, when we do talk about, we invoke phrases like “the church is dying”. Which is interesting, since Jesus seems to suggest that, whatever is happening, it isn’t that.
Well, I think we should talk about it. But I’m not going to make you feel like whatever is happening to the church is your fault, personally. And I’m going to try to avoid sounding like Chicken Little in predicting the imminent disappearance of two millennia of Christianity. So millennials aren't going to church in record numbers right now. Wasn’t that many years ago that millennials wouldn’t have missed Teletubbies for the world. Things change, is what I’m saying.
My friend Todd Dildine, reflects in a series of blog posts on Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone. The book suggests that there are larger forces at play in the supposed “death of the church” — forces that have affected the development of community in America since the early sixties. Putnam, in short, says that the same influences that have made it difficult for many churches to enjoy sustained growth have also affected involvement in other volunteer organizations, political parties, and in hosting and visiting each other at home. Todd suggests, with Putnam, that the three main factors in this destruction of community over the last 50 or 60 years are the growing number of dual-career families, sprawl and mobility, and technology.
Now, I think Todd’s a sharp guy, and I don’t want to be critical, but I think we should tap the brakes just a bit. For one thing, we’re not the first generation that has to deal with the triple threat of lack of time, distance, and technology. When women didn’t usually work outside the home, they still had plenty to do inside the home, and I doubt there were, in reality, many Leave It to Beaver moments when a wife and mother met her husband at the door in heels and pearls, presenting perfectly-behaved children and a well-prepared meal. The same faults laid at the digital doorstep of media and the internet today were laid at the analog doorstep of radio a few decades ago. And while the rise of the car has contributed to sprawl, that’s not a new development either. And, arguably, it solves as many problems with distance as it creates.
Todd echoes the refrain that “the church is dying,” and I understand what he’s getting at. He has the stats to back up his point of view: church attendance has steadily declined 38% in America over the last few decades. Of Millennials who grew up going to church, 59% have dropped out. I’d like a little more information about those numbers. I’d like to see a little more explanation of what we’re defining as “church attendance” and what “dropped out” means. But, however you parse it, as he puts it:
If the Republican or Democratic Party had stats like this, they would be freaking out and dramatically change the way they do things… If the NFL lost 25-50% of their audience, they would completely change the way the sport is run.
And yet… for the most part we don’t talk about our dying Church and when we do we are completely off on what is causing the decline of the American Church.
Clearly, we have a problem. It’s hard to deny that, and I don’t wish to. What I want to suggest is that the church is not dying. I say that not a statistical observation, but as a theological preconception. The church isn’t dying because it’s the life of Jesus that sustains it, not anything we can do or figure out or solve.
I think that’s more than semantics. As a matter of faith, I would argue that the church will survive the decaying community of 21st century America for the same reasons it’s survived every other test in every other time and place: the power of God, the sustaining presence and grace of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. When we act in his name, and in the power of his Spirit, what happens has spiritual import.
But the church will change. Be sure of that. Some local expressions of the church will note the unique challenges of our time and place and adapt their methodology to meet them. They might grow, or they might shrink, or they might stay the same size. Others will insist on acting as though they live in a bubble in time, and they will eventually probably dry up and disappear. Local churches, like everything else organic, have a life cycle. They’re born, they grow, they reach maturity, and they decline. At some point, perhaps, they are no longer able to be flexible enough to meet the demands of the time and place in which they’re located. But the church as a whole doesn't die. That’s just bad theology.
The question to ask, then, is whether or not we will adapt to changing circumstances. I don’t mean by altering our style of music, or hiring a hipper preacher, or using better musicians and flashier video and lighting effects. I mean by actively and intentionally looking to counter the influences in our culture that push against the kingdom of God.
In my next post, I want to talk about those changing circumstances. What are they? How should the church change to meet them? Just as importantly, how should we, perhaps, not change? What are we “stuck” with?
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