There is a statement I hear a lot in the circles I run in. It goes something like this.
“The church is dying.”
I don’t know how that statement affects you, but for me it is deeply troubling. You see, I love the church. So, for me the statement causes the same questions and emotions that would arise if I heard that someone that I loved was dying.
“Are you sure?” “How could this be?” “How long do we have?”
Are you sure?
“The church is dying” statement is largely based on the analysis of data that shows the number of worshipping people in churches in America is declining (and it has been for quite some time). Studies show that if these attendance and conversion trends continue, many of our mainline denominations will be facing certain death.
Certainly “the church is dying” would make no sense in large pockets of huge church growth in South America and Africa. “The church is dying” would bewilder the faithful Christian church in China; a church that has grown exponentially over the last century largely in illegal house churches. It should also be mentioned that there are churches in America that are experiencing life and growth in ways that are both inspiring and beautiful. But as a whole, American churches are on hospice care. Symptoms are being treated to make the church comfortable as she slowly dies. She dies while the communities surrounding these old, large buildings grow more and more disconnected to and disinterested in what is taking place inside of them. Urban areas in most large American cities feature dilapidated church buildings that may be home to 20 worshipping people with white skin in an otherwise colorful neighborhood. Many more of these former houses of worship are now boarded up or occupied by more successful business ventures. The neighborhood has changed, the church hasn’t, and it is dying.
How could this be?
Somewhere along the way the American church became like most institutions; we began to focus more on the survival of the institution than on the reason for the institution. Instead of focusing on the vision that gave us birth, we became consumed with simply staying alive. We forgot that what gave us vitality was the world-transforming story of life, hope, and power found in Jesus Christ. It is a story that involves risk and change and rarely stability and safety. The American dream that dwells heavily on stability and safety became the prevailing hope of American Christians instead of the radical good news of Jesus Christ. This caused the church to get sick and die.
How long do we have? is, I think, the most hopeful question that we ask. While some statisticians point to the certain demise of the church, I see something else taking place. Even among the generations that purport an interest “in Jesus, but not the church”, I believe that we are seeing a return to the church. Generations X and Y before would say, “Yes, this Jesus I am intrigued by, interested in, even drawn to. But, not the church.” The church was seen as hypocritical, judgmental, and anti-homosexual. (3 defining church characteristics commonly given by young adults.) And yet, as my generation begins to encounter Jesus because of our intrigue in Jesus, we find that Jesus would not be too keen on this combination of regard for Him and disdain for the church. That if, in fact, our intrigue in Jesus grows into the desire to follow Jesus (which often happens), then we learn quickly that being a part of the broken yet held together community of Jesus followers is inevitable (and joyful!). And while I will make no defense for some of the horrendous, hateful things the church has done at its worst-- and though I will even be critical of some of the thoughtless, lazy ways the church has grown complacent-- I want to be clear; I love the church.
Jesus Christ’s church was initially established for those who felt disconnected and disregarded by the established religion of the day and it will not die. It’s not an option and it won’t happen. I do think it is possible that the United Methodist Church might die (I surely hope not…this is the branch to which I belong and love dearly.) I think it is possible that being a Baptist or Episcopalian or Presbyterian might be something you read about only in history books. But I don't think that Jesus Christ’s church will die. I believe the church will adapt and change and flourish. My fear is that I'll be left standing on the sideline while this happens because I am so busy supporting and upholding a beast of an institution.
But the church will live in the way God has intended, because the story will not die. There are too many who need to hear it. Those on the outside who have grown disconnected and disinterested in church are precisely the reason that the church will move forward. As that group has grown, so has the need and the power behind the church to connect them to Jesus. The disconnected hearing this story will be dependent on those of us still hanging on. Will we remember our story?
The same longings that were in the first followers are found in those who will choose to follow today. There is still something inside of us that says “we can’t do this alone”, we know we weren’t intended to, and there must be a group where I can belong.
We can’t focus on just keeping the institution alive. I love the church, but for it to be taken off of life support, our energy has to be focused on what made it flourish in the first place: Jesus followers filled with the Holy Spirit who had to tell the story to those who felt alone.
We have to tell the world, “there is a place for you in Jesus Christ’s church.” There is a place for those who have been wounded by the church; a place where you can quench that still lingering thirst to connect with other followers of Jesus. It is for those who know they need some healing for that to happen. It is for those who are intrigued by Jesus, but not sure where the church fits into that. It is for the ones who have never heard the story, the ones who have forgotten, and the ones who have been hurt by its misuse. It is for those whose hearts break when they hear of a dying church. It is for those of us who can’t escape the Jesus hold on our lives and despite all that would cause us to do the contrary, still love the church.