In a recent Facebook post on the trending Pew report on the status of religion in the USA, Tripp Hudgins
comments, ʺ…Iʹm still wondering why we have such a hard time discussing these shifts in religious expression as part of a larger shift. Itʹs not that people just donʹt ʹdoʹ church any more. Thereʹs no ʹproblem.ʹ Thereʹs no ʹfix.ʹ Itʹs that people donʹt do anything like they used to. Belonging itself has changed. The way people embody love, affiliation, loyalty, identity, community, political belief, and artistic expression has changed. Religious expression (specifically Christianity) is simply one facet of this change. ʺ
This is a thoughtful refection on the state of the church in general and our congregation in particular. As we look for renewal, how often do we unnecessarily ʺproblematizeʺ our situation, looking for solutions or ʺfixesʺ that donʹt address real needs? If, as seems clear to me, the church as we know it is disappearing, renewal cannot be some rearguard action to save what we have known and loved. Renewal is to look for the new thing that God is doing and join in that creative process.
As I have jokingly tried to explain to people who have asked about our renewal process, we are looking to hire someone to come ʺsave us.ʺ Then, as soon as I say it, I do wonder if we are not, like Jesusʹ first followers, looking for a messiah of our own design, someone to lead us back to the future. If the conversation continues, I try to explain that our real commitment is to finding someone with a vision that will help us see and embrace Godʹs new thing. This, of course, means accepting change, change that might be more radical than any of us has imagined. And we know that change of that order is not likely to come easy.
Is it true that we live in a world in which ʺ…people donʹt do anything like they used toʺ? If Tripp is right that ʺbelongingʺ as well as ʺthe way people embody love, affiliation, loyalty, identity, community, political belief, and artistic expressionʺ have all changed, indeed are still changing, why would this not also include ʺreligious expressionʺ? Iʹm not sure we need to give up everything we have come to value from our traditions, but we do need to hold those traditions lightly and be willing to re‐shape, let go, move on as God calls us to something new.
In response to Trippʹs post, someone sent a blog post by Tom Ehrich on ʺ5 Ways Churches Are Hurting Themselves.ʺ Tom believes that ʺ Christianity isn’t in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. ʺ He argues that God is just fine, thank you, still speaking, at work in the world, doing a new thing, if we could just see it. He offers five thoughtful reasons why churches are struggling. What do you think?
- ʺWe stopped trying.ʺ That is, there have been times when the church has moved boldly and lived creatively in the world. As we began to experience the decline from the peak participation of the post World War II church ʺboom,ʺ we panicked. We began to focus on a futile attempt to secure those gains at the expense of the bold creative ministry to which God calls us. Conservation took precedence over mission.
- ʺWe stopped giving.ʺ Iʹm not sure how true this is for us as our community has continued to be generous in its support of our congregation and its ministry. Our giving has suffered more from attrition in membership than it has in generosity. But there is some validity to the notion that, as we have come to believe and trust less in the importance and efficacy of the church, we have tended to withdraw support. Also, as it has become more and more expensive to live in our community, choices about how to spend income have become more difficult. Ehrich argues that, as part of the rearguard action, churches have tended to invest their resources in maintaining facilities and institutions before Godʹs mission in the world. We have tried to compromise in this area by investing in our facilities for the good of the larger community, which we have seen as mission.
- ʺWe turned inward.ʺ We have tended to draw in, becoming more self-absorbed with our own survival than with our witness to and connection with the wider world beyond our walls.
- ʺWe fixated on Sunday morning.ʺ It seems to me that this is partly a function of the many different demands on our time and energy. There are so many more options and obligations for commitment and involvement than there were in my youth. We were at church several times in a week and it was central to our lives. Now Sunday is the one time a week the community gathers. Does it still work anymore? Is it enough? Are there alternative ways a community might engage that would serve Godʹs new thing better than what we are now trying to accomplish in a few hours on Sunday morning?
- ʺWe trashed our reputation.ʺ Again, this may not be so true for us a congregation.But we live with the consequences of a particular connection of religious fundamentalists and right wing politics that has come to characterize Christianity and the church in many minds. Sadly, Baptist itself has become a ʺdirtyword.ʺ Too often we are seen as judgmental, inhospitable, self‐absorbed, uninteresting, unkind. I imagine that some of this is attributable to our self-absorption as we have struggled with attrition along with loss of influence and prestige.
I donʹt know how accurate or comprehensive these particular reflections are, but hopefully they will encourage us to shift our focus from ʺbeing saved,ʺ finding solutions to non‐existent or non‐meaningful dilemmas to joining God in doing a new thing or two in terms of our witness to the establishment of Godʹs Beloved Community in the world around us. As people of faith, we know that God is not done with us or with creation. The invitation is to join with God as agents of creative, perhaps even holy change. It is the same kind of call that Jesus issued his first followers. Come follow me. As Brian McLaren has reminded us over and over this year, we make this road by walking. That is, we take a chance, we risk the unknown, we walk Godʹs way, following Christ, empowered by the Spirit until the Beloved Community becomes reality in our lives and in the world round us.
Yours on the journey.