Monday, September 18, 2023

If the Church Dies

There has been a flurry of books and articles recently that try to explain why churches are losing people at an alarming rate. A recent example is a book entitled The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis and Michael Graham. The authors begin the book with these dire words: “In the United States, we are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshippers nationwide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all.”

They have subtitled their book: Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? The authors assume that this precipitous decline in church involvement is a problem to be fixed. But I wonder: What if the Great Dechurching is not a bad thing?  What if it is a good thing? What if it is a God thing? What if God is pruning the church back to the root? What if God is behind this exodus? Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What if the church needs to die?

Near the end of his ministry Jesus explained to his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and die. The apostle Peter’s response was “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me. You are not on the side of God but of men.” Maybe the dying of the church is not a problem, any more than Jesus' death was a problem. Maybe the Great Dechurching is God’s solution to a more serious problem.

A few years ago my younger son bought an 18th century house on sixteen acres of land in our small town in New Hampshire. At first he planned to renovate the house. On closer examination, he discovered that the house was in such bad condition that it could not be salvaged. The mold and rot were too extensive. It had to be razed to the ground to make way for a new structure. Now he lives in a beautiful timber frame home that he built with his own hands, made from lumber harvested from his land.

Perhaps the church today is in the same condition as that old house. Perhaps it is in such bad shape that it cannot be saved. It needs to be razed so that a new church can be built in its place. God is pressing the reset button, just as God did with humankind in the Flood, just as God threatened to do with Israel after the Exodus, if Moses had not talked God out of it.

God has worked this way in the past, according to the Bible. The eighth century (BC) prophets proclaimed that God was fighting against Israel and was going to destroy it if it did not repent. Israel did not listen, and God destroyed the northern kingdom; ten tribes of Israel disappeared from history. In the sixth century Jeremiah fearlessly preached the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as the will of God. The leaders of Judah put Jeremiah in prison for prophesying this. Jesus likewise prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The political and religious leaders killed him for it.

I do not know for sure, but I think God may be doing the same sort of thing in our time. The Great Dechurching reports that religious abuse and general moral corruption in churches have driven people away. For decades young parents told me they were bringing their children to church and Sunday School in order to inculcate moral values. Now parents do not see the church as moral. Many see the church’s message and conduct as immoral! Parents used to bring their children to church to learn about God. Now they are pretty sure the church does not know God.

The church is so corrupt and diseased that God cannot allow it to continue. So God is surgically removing the church from the world in order to save the world from the church. This is not the rapture of the church that evangelicals are expecting; this is the judgement of the church that they don’t see coming.

The church does not have a problem; the church is the problem. The church thinks the problem is in the culture outside the church, but the real problem is in the church culture. The church does not see that, and therefore it has no motivation to change. Instead it doubles down on the culture wars. Because of the church’s spiritual blindness, the only solution left to God is so drastic that no one wants to think about it.

The church needs to die, so it can be resurrected as an entirely new creation. For that reason I am not dismayed when I read ever-worsening statistics about the decline of the church. I see God’s hand in it. Like a gardener or farmer, God is turning over the soil, in order to prepare for a new season. Perhaps if the church repents, it can avoid the looming catastrophe, like Nineveh temporarily escaped destruction under the preaching of Jonah. But I see no sign of such a contrite spirit in the church.

The good news is that if the Old Testament pattern is repeated, it means that a faithful remnant will survive the Great Dechurching, like Noah and his family survived the Flood, like a remnant of Judah survived the Babylonian exile. From the stump of Jesse a shoot will sprout. From the ruins of the dying church, a living church will grow. From the microchurches that survive the coming exile, a new Body of Christ will arise. 

Accepting the Great Dechurching as the will of God does not mean I am giving up on the church. I love the church. I especially love the church I attend, and I love the Church as a worldwide body. I am not going to stop worshiping with a local body of believers. Instead I trust that “in all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to God’s purpose.”

Not all churches are rotten, but the great number of corrupt churches and leaders give the good ones a bad name. Not all Christians act and speak in an unchristian manner, but all Christians are tainted by the public words and actions of high profile Christians who cause harm to the cause of Christ.

The Church is the Body of Christ, and ungodly Christians are growing in the body like cancer. The situation seems to be getting worse with each passing year. That is the cause of the Great Dechurching. Soon the number of saintly believers will not be enough to save the church, any more than they were enough to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

We are witnessing a great work of God in our time. It is a work of biblical proportions. It is greater than we can imagine with our sociological models and predictions. It is greater than religious revival. This is resurrection. Therefore I do not lament the Great Dechurching. I do not fear for the future of the church. For I know that if the church dies, it will bear much fruit.

1 comment:

Clark said...

If I am an example, then lots of folks are practicing their faith at home. But I do believe that we are called to benefit society. Perhaps we can bring our temple with us as we go out into the world. I am currently looking for ways to do this and allies in the adventure of a lifetime. Blessings to you and yours.