Unless you live under a rock or only get your news from the Farmer’s Almanac, you have probably heard about the recent Pew Research report detailing the decline of Christianity in the US, and the rise of the ‘nones’ – those who claim no religious affiliation.
Predictably, people are up in arms. Bloggers are writing doom and gloom pieces. People are trying to explain the decline. Some are saying that the decline is the result of lax theology and drifting away from traditional / conservative beliefs and values. Others are saying that liberal mainliners are providing what the ‘nones’ are really looking for, especially what young disaffected millennials are looking for.
Perhaps the only new, but unsurprising, find of this recent Pew report is that Evangelicals are declining too. This contradicts the often lauded trope of the last few years that decline is a mainline thing.
Well I have to admit, that this all feels like a tired rehash of what we already know. But in particular, as a Canadian, I see the panic happening among US Christians as something we felt about 20 years ago. We are a lot farther along the social secularization path than our dramatic neighbours to the south.
And as I have blogged about before, as a Millennial Christian in Canada, the only church I have known is one in decline. I have only ‘heard’ the stories of everyone in town being in church on Sundays… I haven’t lived it. Being a church-going person was the exception among my peers growing up, not the norm. We used to sing the national anthem on Monday mornings in school but we never prayed the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, the idea of one of my grade school teachers leading the Lord’s Prayer sounds absurd.
Yet, the analysis, panic, fear, and explanations of the past few days is not what we are all getting wrong about this decline thing.
I think there are few things that we miss when we panic about a society and culture that is no longer evangelizing for us. And these things should be the first things we name when talking about church decline in North America.
1. The Golden Era of Church attendance in the 1950s was the abnormality.
So often our discourse on decline assumes that wide-spread socially motivated church attendance is normative. So many church people are used to a world where the question was which church to attend on Sunday mornings, not whether or not one should attend at all. During the Reformation, many protestant groups were born out of the fact that most people were nominally Christian, and did not attend church or “show their faith” in how they lived. North American society in the 1800s and early 1900s was not one that ubiquitously attended church. I think the big bulge in church attendance, church planting and growth of the 1950s was due to a global experience of PTSD following World War One, the Great Depression and World War Two. The church was convenient place to land for a world looking to make sense of decades of suffering. 60 years on from then, I think decline is a correction, rather than a failure.
2. What we are seeing is the death of Christendom… not the Church.
Conversations about church decline are almost always accompanied by the lament of the loss of cultural Christianity. There is talk of prayer in schools and town council meetings, the 10 commandments on display at courthouses, sports, music and dance happening during Sunday morning worship, the church as community centre and neighbourhood gathering place. And yet, if we took a minute to really consider what that means, we are actually demanding a church that is dependant on empire, that is served by kingdoms and governments. We want a church that needs to have all other activities banned during its worship. We long for a church that needs its prayers taught in schools and that seeks power by influencing political leaders.
Is it really such a bad thing to see the decline of that church?
3. We like to think that we are the ones who can finally do the church in.
As if the church lives and dies by us. Christ’s church has been around for 2000 years. It began by spending 300 years on the margins of a religiously plural world. It was subsumed into being the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire. It has been nearly blown by up schism. Almost over-run by the empires of other faiths. It has crusaded and begun terrible holy wars. It has been cracked and splintered by reformation. It has been challenged to its core by renaissance and scientific revolution. The church has survived all of that, against all odds.
But now our social angst and apathy, and our institutional intractability is going to finally put the church out of its misery? Because we cannot be the church of empire or let social structures do our evangelism for us, the church will just fade away?
Sometimes I think that we tie our attendance to God’s faithfulness. We believe that God approved of the church more when it was full 50 years ago. And now God is frowning at us because we couldn’t freeze time, because the world changed around us and we weren’t sure how to deal with it.
This Pew Research report is nothing new. It is full of things we already know. But maybe decline, the more it gets thrown in our face, is telling us something important about the church – about God’s work in the world.
A declining church does not equal a declining God.
Nor does a full and rich church equal an increasing God.
Maybe God’s work in the world has nothing to do with numbers.
Maybe God’s mission through the church cannot be measured quantitatively.
Maybe what God is doing can only be experienced qualitatively. The Good News is not about winning souls by filling pews. The Good News is that Christ’s death and resurrection is our death and resurrection too – and this fact transforms who we are.
So maybe, just maybe, this declining stuff… this dying stuff that the church is doing… is just what always comes right before empty tombs and being known in breaking bread.
What we get wrong about decline is that we rarely consider that it just might how God is doing God’s work, in and through us – God’s church.
How did you respond to the Pew Research report? Can the church survive decline? Is the best thing to happen to Christianity in a while? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik