Church decline?

I’ve read far too many articles over the years about the “decline of the church in America!” Yup, people are leaving their churches. There’s a great reshuffling going on within churches on top of that. It’s probably due to a variety of factors – a trend that has been going on for decades that accelerated, the partisan nature of so many people, the shifting of identity away from faith to ideology, churches making public statements on a variety of social issues that upset people, an outdated model of church that is finally collapsing, outdated expectations of church that can no longer be fulfilled, abuses and exploitations that are finally being exposed and no longer acceptable for the protection of the institution, lack of trust in institutions in general, an existential rethinking of so many people, economic challenges, the pandemic, and more.

But is decline in membership really the worst thing in the world for the church? Or is it just a type of cleansing that is going on where the church will be leaner and the people who are a part of it more interested in living out the faith they claim? Or something else entirely? We’ll have to wait to see how it plays out.

Here’s what I know: I thought I would be spending more time with those that are unchurched – either those who left the church, had bad experiences with church, or who were never a part of church. The nones and dones are a growing segment of society, so why wouldn’t I, and churches who want to spread the Gospel spend more time with folks like this.

I spend plenty of time with churched people and those are times of blessing – especially with folks who are serving their neighbors, serving their communities, helping those that need help, checking on others in the congregation, making food for people, and more. I thoroughly enjoy my time with these folks and hope that we can be an inspiration for each other.

I do spend a good amount of time with people who are not churched actually – building relationship with people and community, getting to know people, serving those in need, sharing faith in appropriate ways that don’t make it seem like all I care about is “saving” people. As I’ve said many times before, I can’t save anyone – that’s God’s job. All I can do it proclaim and invite. I proclaim that life doesn’t have to be the way it is in the world, and invite people into a different way of living and being in community. And I love these times. It’s really about the expansion of the kingdom of God – at least how I see it.

What I didn’t suspect at all was that I would be spending time fighting with fellow Christians trying to convince them to act Christlike in word, deed, and what they support in terms of policies impacting other people.  Frankly, that part sucks. It sucks the life out of me, it’s frustrating. If you want to understand why the church is in decline, I think that whole notion explains it pretty clearly.  We have Christians who live in an anti-Christ way, while there are those outside of the church who will never label themselves as Christian act Christ-like. This isn’t an all or nothing situation. Let me be clear, as I stated before, there are many Christians who do their darnedest to live in a Christ-like manner. And I’m grateful for each one of these people.

But let’s also be honest here – There are certain strains of Christianity that make me seriously question if we worship the same God or not.  Because I don’t recognize the god that these strains embrace and uphold as the reasoning for their actions, laws passed, restrictions, and more.  I can’t fathom how it is Christ-like to live, speak, and support public policies that are antithetical to what Christ taught. I’m not sure what Christianity it is that these folks practice, but I’m pretty convinced it’s something else masquerading as Christianity, using the name, while actually being about something else.

And that’s why decline in the church isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes we need to let certain things die off in order for new life to take root. Jesus gave plenty of parables about this. He talked about the seed dying so that the tree can grow. Maybe certain forms of Christianity just need to die off so that honest faith in Jesus can take root and grow again in America. Maybe we’re in the midst of a pruning to allow for the better health of the plant. Pick your analogy/metaphor.

I’m a pretty optimistic person overall. And to me, a decline isn’t a bad thing. It’s not fun. It’s not pleasant. But it’s not a bad thing. It means that something isn’t working. And that change is required. And where there is change, there is opportunity. Opportunity exists where there is vision. And where there is vision, there is hope. So, let the decline run its course. And let’s do what we’re supposed to be doing anyway – proclaiming and inviting. Proclaim the kingdom of God and what it is about, what Jesus’ way of peace and discipleship is all about and how it is transformative, and invite people into this way. Some will come along, some won’t. So what? It’s not our job to save people or the church. It’s our job to be disciples, to proclaim and invite. What others will do in response is up to them. Stop looking at decline as who is missing. That’s a losing battle. Instead, look at how discipleship is taking root and faithful is being taken seriously. That’s a cause for joy and hope. The church will be stronger after it gets through this period of history. It will be different and look different, but it will be stronger than ever. Just not in human measurements. But rather in faith.

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