To the dying church,
The ongoing decline of American Christianity is well documented. A quick Google search of “mainline decline” provides statistics, commentary, and variously tried and discarded solutions related to the struggles of liberal protestantism in the United States. More recently, these trends are showing up in conservative Christian circles as well. The attention of the media, religious scholars, and cultural warriors has been captured by the rise of the “nones,” the “spiritual but not religious,” humanists, and evangelistic atheists.
It is clear who’s ascending and who’s falling. Organized religion is doomed. You, dying church, are in trouble.
I have seen your sickness up close. The congregation where I was baptized — once full on Sunday mornings — now barely hangs on. The church where I preached in college has long since closed its doors. My pastor friends spend their days worrying about shrinking worship attendance and a lack of financial resources for carrying out their ministry. Denominations pause from fighting and splitting just long enough to make budget cuts and lay off staff.
What can be done? What should be done? Is this a new reality that we simply must accept?
A lot of time, energy, and money has been invested in strategies for church growth and renewal. Books have been read. Programs implemented. New worship services introduced. Websites are updated. Twitter accounts are opened and then abandoned because nobody really understood how to use it, but they read about how important it was to be on Twitter.
Some of this has worked, but much of it has not. Perhaps it is time to separate the wheat from the chaff.
While there are lessons pastors can learn from the business community, the whole “pastor as CEO” talk needs to end. Treating the church as a business robs the church of its spiritual essence. Budgets, marketing strategies, demographic analysis, and other business tools can be helpful in advancing a mission, but when they are substituted for the mission means have been confused for ends.
Pastors are also not therapists. The culture of self-help that is present in so many Christian circles confuses the importance of high self-esteem with human flourishing. Faith is not about having “your best life now.” The church is certainly a place where healing is found, identity is affirmed, and help is offered, but the ultimate purpose of church is not the facilitation of self-expression or the blessing of our culture’s self-indulgent ways. The Bible is filled with stories where followers of God encounter serious challenges to their physical and material well-being. Martyrdom has been part of Christianity since the earliest days. As one of my pastoral mentors likes to note, “we are not call to be successful. We are called to be faithful.”
That faithfulness involves participating in God’s reconciling work within the world. But just as faith without works is dead, so work without faith is unsustainable. Social action must be deeply rooted in and nourished by a rich and relevant theology. Otherwise the church becomes nothing more than a poorly managed and inefficient service agency.
The saying, often attributed to St. Francis, goes, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
It is time to use words.
Proclaiming Jesus as Lord is a revolutionary claim. It requires conviction. People are forced to make a choice about who and what they’ll serve. We must pick up our crosses and be willing to risk death for the sake of Gospel. Christian faith entails sacrifice and service. It involves loving God so deeply that we embrace both our neighbors and our enemies.
As the Proverb notes, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” There are people dying physically and spiritually because the church has neglected the good news of the Gospel. If we truly believe that God can transform lives and resurrect the dead then why aren’t we screaming it from the mountaintops?
Moments of crisis can be incredibly clarifying. They demand we focus on what is most important. Our limited time and resources must be marshaled toward what is most urgent, while unnecessary distractions have to be cast aside.
You, church, need to acknowledge the crisis we face. Then you must focus on what is most important: the proclamation of the Gospel and the shaping of lives by it. You might just be surprised by the reaction from the spiritually hungry who are desperate for a compelling alternative to the world’s understanding of success.
But first someone has to show them that an alternative exists. How can they know if they have not heard? Use your words, o dying church. Use your words.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Beau Underwood is Senior Director of Advocacy for Sojourners.