Decline of What?

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

city-methodist-cathedral-2

Membership is down in many congregations. Average weekly attendance is down, too. They are down as compared to 1965. They are down as compared to 1985. They are down, in many places, as compared even to 2005. There has been a general decline in the church.

And it’s not just people. There’s not enough money. Ministries – campus ministries, urban ministries, youth ministries – are being closed down or cut back due to lack of funding. And the buildings. They are crumbling. Literally, crumbling

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

[Confused that I asked the question again]

No, not what do you mean by decline. You already covered that. This time I’m asking about what you mean by church. What is this “church” that is in decline?

The church on the corner. It has beautiful stained glass windows, dark wood pews, and a fellowship hall. Two worship services. Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School. A seniors group and, sometimes, a youth group. It’s a place where people come to learn and grow and be together and worship and serve. That’s the church that’s in decline. 

OK. Glad we got that cleared up. The institution that we’ve come to know and love, the institution that we have called “church” all these years, is in decline. Yes. But, I’m unwilling to say that “the church” is in decline. You see, it all depends on what you mean by “church.”

church n  a big building on a corner lot with one (or more) full-time pastor(s) and other staff members, where people of a common faith gather for weekly worship and Bible study, a variety of fellowship, program, and service ministries, youth programs, education, etc.

church n the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.

Increasingly we are unable to sustain the first definition of church. That first definition represents a model of being church that was born in an era that has come and gone, an era in which church was seen as a prestigious community institution to stand alongside government and civic institutions. It is a way to do church that thrived on historically high rates of church participation, a culture that embraced (certain forms of) religion, and a post-war economic boom. It is a way to do church that was funded by an unusually high volume of offerings given faithfully by the unusually high numbers of people who attended church. Lots of good and faithful ministry happened in this model of being the church, but it is a model that does not thrive in today’s cultural and economic climate as much as it did in the past.

Today, church participation rates are leveling out in relation to historical trends. Today, the church does not have as vaunted a privileged place in society as it once did. Today, household discretionary income is at historic lows, debt levels are skyrocketing, and good paying jobs for young and middle aged people are harder to find. Today’s culture and economy simply do not support the model of church that thrived in the mid 20th century.

Too often when we speak of “church decline” we speak of the inability to maintain the buildings and staffing and programming of the 20th century church. We speak of an inability to pay the bills. Fair enough. But buildings and staffing and programming (and money to fund these) are not the church. A lack of funds represents a decline in how we do church, but not in church itself.

People, gathering at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave to give God their praise and receive God’s many blessings – that is church. Or, to prayer groupuse traditionally Lutheran lingo, the church is “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (the second definition, above, from the Augsburg Confession VII). Or, to quote Professors Wengert and Lathrop, “Church is not a noun; it is a verb, an event, or, to use the language of the sixties, a happening” (Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age, pg 27). Church is that encounter with God’s Word that puts sin to death and gives rise to a new creation. Such an understanding of church doesn’t require dedicated buildings, staff, or programs.

In some places the received model of church – building, program ministries, staff – is working well. Thanks be to God! Let us pray for the church to thrive in such a way! Yet in a growing number of communities this model of being the church is struggling.

Many of our attempts to renew the church today are aimed at renewing the 20th century model of church, at renewing the received model 0f church supported by a building, pastor, and programs. I hope and pray that such renewal efforts bear fruit, and indeed it seems that some such efforts are bearing fruit. Praise be to God!

Nonetheless, I think we need the creative and faithful imagination to conceive of, and the courage to be, church in drastically new ways, as well. Alongside familiar and renewed models of church, let us also live into new ways of being the church. Such new ways might look like extremely old ways (see Acts and the early church), ways that may have fewer of the trappings of the (beloved) institutional church. Such new/old ways of being church might have a different kind of intimacy, meeting in living rooms and coffee shops rather than in grand sanctuaries. Such new/old ways of being church may have less reliance on professional clergy and more reliance on the shared wisdom and faith of the community. Such new/old ways of being church might find an essential connectivity in social media, just as Saint Paul used social media (letters that were passed around among early Christians) to connect with and encourage the earliest Gentile churches.

Particularly in those areas where the received model of being the church is not thriving, but also alongside established congregations, such new/old ways of being church can renew our experience of a Christian community that gathers at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave. Such new/old ways of being church can faithfully gather God’s people around Word and Sacrament and be that community of sinners redeemed and saints sent into the world to love and serve.

The church church is not in decline as much as the way we do church is in decline. Let us nurture established congregations into ever more faithfulness and vitality, and let us also give birth to new/old communities that live into the promises of God in new ways for this new day.

Learning How to Give

You’d think it wouldn’t take much to learn how to give. Just reach into your pocket and give, right?

franpitre-boysfightovertoy2Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in a preschool, you know that there is often a reluctance in giving and sharing. Sharing toys doesn’t come naturally. Giving that toy to Bobby is even harder.

I was raised by parents who, each in their own way, were generous with their time and treasure. They modeled giving. As a young adult I strived to follow their model, often volunteering for and giving financial gifts to those organizations that were important to me, particularly the church.

But I didn’t start giving in a more significant, sacrificial way, until I met Larry. Larry hired me to work in the development office at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I was young, about to get married, and this was my first job where I was expected to wear a tie to work every day. I was working in fundraising, and after a few weeks on the job Larry asked me for my pledge.

My pledge?

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Now is the Time

Lectionary 33 (25th Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Growing up with the last name of Duckworth,
    and having all sort of nicknames based on the root “Duck” –
    Ducky, Duckman, Duckhead, Duckface, Ducker, Duckaramma, Ducker Doodles –
    I take special interest in all things Duck.
And so at the end of certain political cycles my Duck feathers get ruffled, so to speak,
    as we hear about the fate of “lame duck” politicians.   
There is nothing “lame” about ducks, that you very much.

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Certain Promise, Certain Hope for Uncertain Times

Lectionary 29 (21st Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
2 Timothy 3:14:-4:5
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

In our second reading today we read excerpts of a letter from Paul
    to the younger Timothy,
    a co-worker with Paul in proclaiming the Gospel and building the church
    in the decades following the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
It was a scary time for the early church.
We can easily romanticize the early church,
    view it as some sort of frontier religion with Paul establishing Christian outposts
    in a pagan world, outposts that would later thrive as centers of a vital, new religion.
But the reality was much more grim.

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Walking the Pathway of Faith, Looking for What God Will Do

Lectionary 27 (19th Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
Psalm 37:1-9; Luke 17:5-10

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

“Increase our faith!” the apostles begged Jesus.
Increase our faith.
How many times have we, in our lives, wanted stronger faith?
Faith to believe in God’s promises.
Faith in God to lead us into the right choices.
Faith in God to rescue us when we don’t make the right choices.
Faith in God to step off the pages of this Bible,
    and to leap out from the poetic words and lyrical tunes of 18th century hymns,
    faith in God to turn a ritual gesture of greeting –
    the peace of the Lord be with you –
    into a real, flesh and blood, bear hug of an embrace.
How many times have we wanted stronger faith, more faith … any faith at all?

I know I have.

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Invitation and Abundance (Lectionary 32, Year B)

Lectionary 32 (23rd Sunday after Pentecost)
1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:23-44
November 8, 2009 Pledge Sunday

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I don't watch television much,
    except perhaps for a late night comedy show
    or the occasional World Series featuring my hometown Philadelphia Phillies.
But as I was watching baseball over the past few weeks,
    I was surprised to see – already – advertisements pushing the gift-giving season of Christmas.
Driving back from a conference in western Pennsylvania this week,
    I was shocked to see a large Christmas wreath on a Wal-Mart sign.
What's the message?  That it's time to buy, buy, buy, so you can give, give, give.

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