We all know the constant refrain – “the church is in decline!!!!!!” It’s the constant drumbeat that is being beaten into us. But I wonder if the punctuation is incorrect. I wonder we are hearing it the wrong way. I wonder if we are assuming exclamation points like the statement is some how set in stone, that it is a phrase of finality. But it’s the church we are talking about after all. Isn’t the whole basis of the church set on a belief of life, death, and resurrection? That sounds rather hopeful to me. Not in a fantasyland kind of way either, but in a we’re moving to something much better kind of way. As in the best is yet to come. Isn’t that what we’ve always been preaching and proclaiming? And yet so much of the church seems to be down, as if it actually believes that the best is now over. All that talk about the best is yet to come was just a crock, that the church didn’t actually believe it.
Hello! Time to wake up, kids. Time to wake from your slumber. Time to snap out of the pity party.
The doom and gloom of “the church is in decline!!!!” is incorrect. Let me clarify that statement. I’m focusing on the exclamation points here. The tone of how it is said. Too often we are going around shouting “the church is in decline!!!!” sounding like a bunch of insane people. We could just as easily be yelling “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!!!!”
The church is certainly in decline. But maybe we could approach this differently. What if we started using different punctuation? Doesn’t it feel different already. Not as anxious. Not as defeatist. Not as hopeless. There are actually options and choices. There are things we can look at and do. There is a future and hope. Isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Isn’t that what faith is all about? Isn’t that what resurrection is all about – the very thing we claim?
So let’s give it a shot. Let’s start with a question mark. What exactly is in decline when we say the church is in decline? Church membership? The formal institution? Where is the decline happening? Is the yearning for an encounter with God in decline? Is spirituality in decline? Is the desire for meaning and purpose in decline? Is the desire for a sense of community in decline?
How about we shift to another punctuation. How about an ellipsis? An ellipsis is … It is used typically in the intentional omission of a word, sentence, or whole section of a quote. But it can also be used as a a form of a cliff hanger and creates possibility. So let’s try it here: The church is in decline… What are the possibilities that this creates… If the church is in decline, then… I wonder what is filling people’s void for spiritual hunger… What possibilities are we free to explore when it comes to expressions of faith… If people don’t feel an identity and attachment to the church…
The book I’m currently reading is “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Applebaum. It’s not a book about faith, or theology, or religion. It’s about politics, ideology, and history. And yet, it is more. It’s about people. In chapter four, Applebaum explores a topic that I think has application not only to politics, but also to religion and to society in general. She talks about how some “people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity – diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences – therefore makes them angry. They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.” (Pg. 106).
This is the same type of language that Brian McLaren uses, along with others, to talk about those individuals who are in a “simplistic” stage of faith. (You can read a book review I did on McLaren’s book “Faith after Doubt” here.)
So-called simplistic faith is oriented towards more dualistic thinking – either/or, right/wrong, left/right, orthodoxy/heresy, us/them. This stage has to do with simple trust, obedience, and loyalty.
Whether we are talking about religion or politics, we are ultimately talking about people who prefer and really need a unified narrative in order to make sense of the world – to provide order in the world and in their lives. Yet, as Applebaum clearly states “That world has vanished. We now are living through a rapid shift in the way people transmit and receive political information – exactly the sort of communication revolution that has had profound political consequences in the past.” (pg. 111). “All of this has unnerved that part of the population that prefers unity and homogeneity…The modern debate does not. Instead, it inspires in some people the desire to forcibly silence the rest.” (pg. 117).
This is a reality in our culture – both politically and in our churches. It raises serious questions that I don’t think we have even begun to ask in our churches, because we haven’t even begun to face this reality.
There are a variety of people in our churches and the real question is how are we to get along with each other when we have some whose preference is for so-called “unity” which is really about the absence of diversity of thought, belief, people, style, or anything else. In light of what is above, no wonder we have real challenges with changes in our churches related to sexuality, the role of women in leadership in our churches, race, and more. We have worlds that have collided.
This focus on “unity” of one way of doing things – the only way, as determined by those with the power to make that decision and the power to enforce that on others – comes with consequences. Make no mistake, this way has already been unleashed upon the church and it is one of the reasons we are in the midst of a church decline, but certainly not the only one. When such power moves are made, there are others who walk away. They don’t need to put up with such things. The people who walk away know deep down that when the church does this, it isn’t about following Jesus any longer, it is about other things. The church has already died and they follow Jesus advice – “let the dead bury the dead.”
Is there room in the church for those who seek to maintain status quo and those who seek to change it? (If I can put the situation in such simplistic terms?) That’s the wrong question. Because if that is the focus, then the answer is simple – no. There won’t be. We’ll tear each other apart. The church will be like anything else – a power struggle. And it will be like so many of the political struggles in Applebaum’s book.
Which leads to the main point of this post – my hopes for the church in 2023.
I hope that the church focuses on Jesus in 2023. Without a focus on Jesus, everything else is pointless. All the service projects, the money, the mission trips, the mission statements, the dogmas – everything else is pointless if our first focus isn’t on Jesus. If you want to know why the church is in decline, it’s simple – we aren’t focused on Jesus. We’ve been more concerned with so many other things. We’ve been more concerned with keeping buildings, with maintaining institutional structures, with keeping pastors employed, with attaching to political parties and agendas and politicians, with so many other things. None of these things are bad by themselves – although some of these things are not good. But they aren’t primary, even though the church has acted like they are. Did we get bored with Jesus? Did we just decide to give Jesus lip service? In some cases I wonder if we just decided we knew better than Jesus did. Did we decide to make Jesus into the servant of the church as opposed to the head? I don’t know. Following Jesus is what we are supposed to be about – not making members. And it’s not very complex really. As much as we try to make it.
My second hope for the church in 2023 is that the decline of the church will be an ellipsis and not an exclamation point. That it will allow for the church to look at several things and see the multitude of opportunities that exist for the church right now. And it really doesn’t take very much to grab hold of those opportunities and give them a try. Some of this has to do with a recognition of who is in the church, in any given church – who are the people that prefer and need the simple unifying narrative and who are the people that are oriented towards a more expansive expression of faith in order to see more of the image of God? How can the church utilize what it already has? And who are its neighbors? Who are the people around it, the people it is in community with? Instead of trying to force something, what is God already up to and inviting the church into?
Which leads to my third hope for the church in 2023 – that the church would stop fighting over things that don’t matter, but go all in on the things that do matter. What are these things? This may be subjective, but here goes – if it relates to stuff, it’s secondary. If it relates to people, it’s more important.
Fourth hope for the church in 2023 – That the church would try new expressions. That it would stop attempting to live into nostalgia and instead live into today with the realities of the challenges that our communities face now. New expressions means new expressions – it means trying and failing. It means investing in people and their ideas and communities and relationships. It means investing with money, time, talent. It means trust. It means not sending someone off on their own to launch a church, but being supported with what they need to get a new expression going. It means how we measure things is different.
Fifth hope for the church in 2023 – That the church would no longer accept abusive behavior and cruelty in its midst or in its membership. That the church would do more than just turn a blind eye to these things or make excuses for these things, but instead would actively confront them, stop them, and repair damage done.
Sixth hope for the church in 2023 – That the church would move from passive membership to active discipleship. The idea that paying a dollar once a year and showing up for worship once a year and saying that you are an active member is pathetic. Magazine subscriptions have more to them than church memberships. Let this be the year that the idea of church membership begins to die and discipleship takes over in our church constitutions. I hope for the sake of our churches that the idea of passive membership dies off. Jesus never called on us to make members. He called on us to make disciples. He called on followers to pick up their cross and follow him. He called on them to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned. He didn’t call on them to join a social club, pay a dollar, and just show up once a year so that they could vote in order to throw a wrench in the plans of the pastor or the people trying to do the ministry or attempt to do something new. Linked to this is the idea that the church has to be more concerned with following Jesus than in losing members or offending people because it is attempting to follow Jesus and it is upsetting the status quo of how things have been done in the past.
Seventh hope of the church in 2023 – That the church can figure out how to go forward with people who are in conflict with each other and with their vision for the church without ripping itself apart – or each other. This isn’t easy. It is about being committed to one another. And requires people to be committed to one another. That requires people to be committed beyond their political parties and ideologies. To be grown ups. To actually talk and to listen. To invest in one another and in communities – invest time, energy, relationship, money, and more. That’s how you build a church that will grow, that people want to be a part of, that will make an impact, and where people will encounter God.
That’s my hopes for the church in 2023 and beyond.