Thursday, October 21, 2021

Does the Church Have a Future?

The headlines this week told the same old story: the American church is declining. This latest study, entitled 2020 Faith Communities Today, was done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It boasts of being the largest U.S. congregational survey ever conducted.

It confirms what Christians already knew - the American Church is hemorrhaging people. There are half as many people in church today as there were twenty years ago. The median worship attendance was 65 in 2020 compared to 137 in 2000. 

What will these churches look like in another twenty years? If the average age that I see in our churches is any indication, in twenty years most congregations will cease to exist. Those still in operation will be on life support provided by trust funds.

This survey indicates that churches declined across all denominations and theological persuasions. Mainline Protestants lost the most people, Catholics and Orthodox next, and Evangelicals least, but all are declining rapidly. As I have watched this decline I have been surprised at the lack of creative thinking in churches and denominations when addressing the decline.

For the most part they have responded by saying and doing the same old things and expecting different results. You know what Einstein said about that strategy! The Faith Communities Today survey concludes: “Traditional ways of worshipping, ministering to spiritual needs and organizing the business of congregations are no longer working adequately for many faith communities.”

As a Baptist I have been attentive to how Baptists have addressed the situation. The Southern Baptists in particular keep repeating the old mantra that the solution is more evangelism. Preach the gospel, plant more churches, give more money, and baptize more people. Just focus on the Great Commission and everything will be alright, they say. Not surprisingly the theme of the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was “We Are Great Commission Baptists.”

No one stops to consider that maybe the gospel being preached is the problem. That is what I discovered when I deconstructed my evangelical Christianity a decade ago. I found that traditional Christianity bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus. Read only the words of Jesus in the New Testament – the so-called “red letters” – and you will discover that for yourself.

Christianity in America is a mishmash of American democracy, American culture, American politics, American prejudices, and American egotism. It is no wonder that conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism have become problems. Most churchgoers see very little difference between American values and Christian values. That is how the phenomenon of “Patriot Churches” emerged. Many Christians see no conflict between the cross and the flag.

When I read the gospels I see a man who was killed by the adherents of that type of religion. When I read the words of Jesus I see a man with direct, unmediated awareness of God. He spoke of a Kingdom of God that was not of this world, yet was also within us and around us. His experiential spirituality bears a strong resemblance to teachings found in other religious traditions of the world.

This ancient and perennial spirituality can save the declining church today. It would speak to people who have an interest in spirituality, but have been unable to find spirituality in Christian churches. If this gospel were recovered it could counter the festering anger, hate, bigotry, and intolerance that are so evident in social and political discourse today.

Yet it is unlikely the church will embrace this original gospel because that would mean the death of the present form of the church, with all its cultural and financial perks and privileges. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Only when the church is willing to die, will it live.

Jesus also said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.” The only way for the church to save itself is to lose itself. Only when the church stops trying to save itself and dies to self, can it be resurrected. Either way the old church is dead. Yet the true Church can never die. Long live the Church!




happi said...

I think that you identified the problem very clearly, Marshall.I think Evangelical church support for DJT has cost them the respect of many like me, an Agnostic.The Spiritual aspect of our humanity seeks and needs nourishing. I may be Agnostic but in the words of Jesus, I find much to nourish my spiritual side and much to occupy my meditations. I would respect the Christian religion more if they concentrated on living the words of Jesus, supporting our society feeding,housing, and finding employment that pays a living wage for our poor citizens, welcoming the desperate asylum seekers, rather than telling me how I should live MY life. If they show me what they believe by living it and supporting the principles of love for each other, for all people, that Jesus preached, then I will look seriously at what they say. Perhaps their preaching should not be so much on what our society is doing wrong but on how they can more effectively actualize the words that Jesus preached. I apologize for being so negative but I really respect and love those red words you spoke of. Happi

Griff said...

Marshall, thank you for sharing this. As Jesus stated, "you cannot put new wine in old wineskins." I have felt for some time that the structure of religion, including Christianity, will not be flexible enough to successfully hold the authentic spirituality (vs. religionism) that is arising in the world.
I am one that embraces the teachings of Jesus but also other great teachers that have revealed truth.
Many today are also walking a path of spiritual inquiry without enrollment in a particular sect. The non-sectarian aspect of this movement is appealing as it refrains from confusing politics with religion. (Render unto Caesar what is Caesars but unto God what is God's). I am thankful for the millions of people exploring personal and spiritual growth. which has helped to raise the level of consciousness on our planet.
Griff O'Brien