Hand wringing among religious folks has never been in short supply, but the doomdayers really had their day a couple of weeks ago, when the Pew Research Center confirmed what conventional wisdom has known now for decades.
We are in an age of post-Christendom – or, American adherents of Christianity continue to decline at a massive rate.
This is a case of statistics catching up with reality. For decades churches have been closing, Sunday Schools have been shrinking, and confirmation classes have been getting smaller. Especially among Catholics and mainline Protestants, the sky has been falling for many years. The Right blames gay rights and liberal theology; the left blames hate speech and an overly doctrinal attitude.
I wonder how we might frame this news in a Biblical manner, beginning first with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and then ending with us.
Largely absent in most discussions about the surefire demise of the church is the theological concept of providence. Providence, taking its inspiration from Biblical passages like Genesis 50:20 (Joseph says to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good …”) and Romans 8:28 (“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God”).
Providence, a word connoting divine care; governance and guidance, has become an antiquated concept. The idea that “God will provide” is tough to swallow in an era of recession, 401Ks, joblessness, and rising inequality. When thousands lost their retirement savings a few years ago, Americans were told to become savers, not to trust the market, to hold off on buying or selling real estate, to trust no one but themselves.
Thus today we find ourselves in a situation where the economy has largely recovered, but banks are still slow to offer loans, and many companies have put off hiring.
The loss of providence has impacted the Church as well. Pastors and parishioners are hesitant to risk too much. Congregations turn inward rather than outward, focusing on “saving our church, ” “maintaining our building, ” rather than “being the church, ” and putting mission goals over facility needs.
None of this is particularly attractive to would-be churchgoers, of course. Neither are the myriad of advantage-taking articles offering solutions to what might be ailing the church. Baby boomers have been “leaving the church, ” physically and psychologically, before most millennials even graduated middle school.
In many American churches today there is a palpable sense of anxiety, rising perhaps in proportion with the growth in anxiety among Americans in general. Many first-time church visitors sense this anxiety in the people and pastors they meet: they feel the pressure for each new member, the fear lingering in the air that one misstep could cause the whole collapse of Western Christianity, not to mention their beloved church that has stood on this very corner since 1924.
This is not exactly a recipe for growth, new life, or the spread of the Gospel – neither is it one to inspire new converts.
Perhaps instead churches across America might do well to read again Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
On this rock I will build my church, says Jesus, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
We the Church are not, as the parable goes, the man who builds his house on sand, but rather our house, our Church, is built on rock – a rock on which Jesus says even the Devil will not prevail against.
Providence reminds Christians who we are and whose we are. This is a lesson many of our brothers and sisters across the world know all too well. In countries where Christians are persecuted, bombed and even killed – a deep abiding in Providence is a necessity. The Early Christian martyrs died believing in God’s providence, that the Church and the God for which they died would prevail in the end. They died not for the Church of Corinth or for the Church of Galatia but for the Church of Jesus Christ.
In the absence of persecution, distanced from and in denial of death, American Christians have forgotten who and whose we are.
In the words of an old 80s song by Jay Beech:
The Church is not a survey of Americans who left long ago. It’s not a screen; it’s not a chant, an altar or a rant. The Church is not denominations, bleeding money and mismanagement. The Church is not seminaries, or clerical collars, or jeans, or kneelers.
The Church is an assembly of believers established by Jesus Himself, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ might be heard and practiced throughout human history.
If anything, American Christians should be more confident in our God and less confident in our institutions. The crumbling of status quo Christianity is a good thing for Jesus, who detested the Pharisees.
Those of us who remain, not the ones who continue to check Yes on a survey out of tradition, complacency or duty, but rather those of us who are compelled by something altogether otherworldly and eternal, we are called now to dig deep. For a church that has lost its defining characteristics, we must define ourselves again as the house not of humans but the house of God, which stands even as buildings crumble and close.
Each church council, each pastor, each bishop must surrender his or her own leadership and turn things over to a providential God, a God who conquered death, and a God whose Church will never die.