Over the past few months, my local paper has been running an excellent series on the state of organized religion in Minnesota.
I’ve been reading these articles with both a deep appreciation for the careful and honest reporting on the rapid decline of church involvement, and a tiny bit of hope that these reporters will uncover some secret formula for helping the church survive. But as someone who has tracked this same research as part of my work creating resources for mainline churches, I’m wondering if my hope needs some nuance.
Like much of what is shifting in American culture right now, the church isn’t being decimated.
It’s being reframed.
It’s easy to blame younger generations for this decline, throwing them under the proverbial bus of disinterest in anything resembling a commitment. But as the most recent report in the series, “Fastest Growing Religion is ‘None’” (Nov. 11, 2018) made clear, people who aren’t showing up at churches are still highly committed to organizing outside of the church -- in yoga classes, in meditation centers, in spiritual retreat centers, in social and political movements. Clearly, the hunger for spiritual connection, spiritual communities, and spiritual commitments hasn’t gone anywhere.
I wonder if churches need to be asking themselves not how to get people in their doors, but whether that’s really the core mission of the church. Instead of facing inward and adding new ministries, new song styles, new buildings in the hopes of drawing new members, perhaps the church needs to consider what’s needed out in the world, not inside its walls.
The church is involved in good and meaningful missional work, like organizing food pantries and supporting refugee resettlement organizations. But too many churches remain stolid institutions that individuals align themselves with, rather than thriving human collectives invested in finding meaning and purpose as they join in the work God is doing in the world. And that work has never been limited to an institution.
What if the church thought of itself as a homebase -- or as theologian Brian McClaren puts it, a “launching pad” -- that equips people to move through the world as agents of God’s good work?
What would that equipping look like?
It might include some of the beloved rituals and language that make the church so much more than a community center, but it might also look like hosting community learning sessions about refugee resettlement or putting together interfaith discussions on issues like race or sexuality or climate care.
It might mean asking questions about what makes a church a church: Is it committees and buildings and Sunday morning services that are programmed down to the minute? Or is it the call to love God and love our neighbors in whatever form that might take?
It might involve -- scratch that, it absolutely involves -- taking a very hard look at the systems inherent in white Christianity that have excluded so many people who are, right now, doing incredible work around justice and reconciliation, environmental advocacy, Native rights, gender equity in the church, and LGBTQ+ inclusion that look very much like the kingdom of God in the book of Revelation:
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -- Rev. 7:9, 15-17
Over this past weekend, a handful of the people I follow on Twitter were at a conference called Women Doing Theology that was put together by the Mennonite church.
Every now and then, a tweet would show up in my feed with some brilliant bit of theological insight from the women -- many of them women of color -- speaking at the conference, but there was one that made me put down my coffee and text my co-workers immediately.
It was from Melissa Florer-Bixler, a Mennonite pastor from North Carolina. She wrote, “Y'all, the church is not dying. The church of patriarchal whiteness is slowly eroding away and grasping at straws to keep itself in control. And somewhere we aren't looking, a different church is being born.”
Yes, the house might be falling down around us, but if the timbers are true and strong, we can use them to build something new, something expansive, something with room for people who have been shut out for too long.