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.

Our Church’s Life, Death, and Resurrection

As I prepare to attend next week's synod assembly, I find myself thinking about the church and how it is organized for its God-given mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

The church has been around for nearly 2000 years. The church has taken on a variety of forms and said a variety of prayers, engaged in a variety of efforts for war and for peace, and has adapted itself to a variety of cultures. This should give us great comfort and great hope.

In 20th century North America, the church became an increasingly professional institution. Accredited seminaries provided professional three year degrees to candidates for the ministry. Congregations lining major corridors along rapidly sprawling suburbs built vast education wings complete with school bells and libraries, miniature religious versions of the public schools being built across the country at the time. These growing congregations welcomed the post-war generation with religious education for all ages, Luther Leagues for the youth, women's and men's groups, fellowship opportunities and dignified worship services. Their bells rang throughout the community, and a growing number of citizens heeded their call.

Congregations hired paid staff, not only paid clergy but also professional office, maintenance, and education staff as well. As there were buildings and funds and personnel to manage, structures of congregational governance took on a more significant role. Roberts Rules of Order became one of three books named in the constitutions of Lutheran congregations, alongside the Bible and Book of Concord. Managing the institutional and programmatic affairs of the congregation became a massive undertaking.

Denominations organized their ministries with national structures governing domestic and foreign missions, with boards and regional presidents and untold vast numbers of committees and commissions. Such institutional growth mirrored efforts to organize civil society with national labor unions and service organizations, and global society with the United Nations. Denominational organizations for women's ministry and youth ministry also flourished, with national boards, regional boards, and congregational boards overseeing and organizing their ongoing work and annual or biannual national conventions.

Denominational leaders were featured on the cover of Time magazine, and congregations were a cornerstone of neighborhood life. Clergy gave the invocation at town council meetings, and school systems deferred to the churches for scheduling of extracurricular activities. Prayer kicked off public school football games and high school graduations. 

This is not how the church had always been structured in its 2000 year history. As I wrote above, over its long history the church has taken on a variety of forms and has adapted to a variety of cultures. This description, above, is simply how the mainline church was structured in many parts of mid-20th century North America. The church looked somewhat different a hundred years prior, and it will look different a hundred years hence. 

We cannot keep trying to maintain a mid-20th century model of church in the rapidly-changing 21st century. The early-mid 20th century cultural factors that supported the massive institutionalization of the church are simply not part of our culture and society today. A new model of church has to be formed. 

The Good News is that God's Word will thrive, and the Holy Spirit will continue to gather the gather the church when and where it pleases, just as it has for 2000 years. Let us give thanks for what the church did in the last century, for the ways that God worked through the church and its institutions. And let us look forward in faith to how the Spirit will move through the church, empowering it to carry out a mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament in this next century. 

I think that as people of faith who also love our church, our challenge is to believe the Easter message that out of death comes life, and that everything – even the church we love – dies and rises to new life with Christ.

And more, I think that many of us in the church find ourselves in a Holy Saturday posture of not being sure of whether resurrection will really happen. Or, perhaps we find ourselves in an Easter Sunday posture, bewildered and not sure of what to make of the resurrection that's staring us in the face.

More thoughts to come. Later. 

Congregational Viability and the Future of the Church

I've been a pastor for a whopping 18 months, but have worked in church settings – seminary, congregations, church publishing house – for much of the last ten years.  As I settle into my career and my life as a parent of growing children, I find myself looking ahead.  And as I look ahead, I wonder how different the church will be in 30 or 35 years, when I approach retirement.

I am 35 years old.  Since 1974, when I was born, the percentage of people claiming a strong religious affiliation has declined by several percentage points, from around 39% to about 33%.  Also over that time, those claiming a "not very strong" religious affiliation has declined 10% … the same percentage by which the number of people claiming "no religion" has grown.  The "somewhat strong" crowd has fluctuated, but remains at the high single-digits.  Overall, folks are reporting a lower degree of religious affiliation (data here).

Also, since 1988 when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed, membership and number of congregations have declined, while the number of pastors has actually increased (data here).  Anecdotally, we can all think of congregations that are smaller than they were 35 years ago, with fewer staff, fewer members, fewer ministries.  An ELCA trend report (available here as a PDF) reveals many downward trends, including declines in giving (in dollars adjusted for inflation), membership, average weekly worship attendance, baptisms, and so forth.  The church, as we know it, is in decline.  Even those much-ballyhooed megachurches are showing signs of decline and/or stagnation.

So what's next?  What will the church look like in 30 or 35 years?  If these trends continue – or accelerate, as is altogether possible – the church will be even less of an institution than it is now.  And I use that word "institution" quite intentionally, for I believe that the Word of God and the faith will survive and even thrive, but that the current way many of us Christians gather to nurture that faith – the ways we institutionalize our practice and community as Christians – will necessarily change.  Are our congregations ready for this kind of a change?  Since congregations are experiencing a declining capacity to pay for full-time ministers, are pastors who depend on full-time church employment ready for this kind of change?

I think it would behoove me to read up on my church history, to wrap my head around the varying ways that the Christian community has gathered around Word and Sacrament over the centuries.  I imagine that the way we Lutherans currently organize – with large (and decaying) church buildings, full-time staff, a vast committee structure – is a relatively modern, largely 20th century phenomenon.  Lutherans haven't always "done church" in this way.  Is it time to find a new way to "do church"?  It's a question worth exploring …

Also, I'm continually struck by the things that God does in the world apart from the church.  Just this week I attended a meeting of faith leaders with staff from the county's Department of Human Services to talk about healthy dating relationships and dating violence.  The county has an amazing capacity to impact our kids and is doing good and holy work to promote abundant life and justice for victims of domestic violence.

And then just yesterday my daughter comes home from her first grade classroom with flashcards teaching her basic economics – consumer, producer, opportunity costs, scarcity, needs, wants, income, and so forth.  What she's learning are the essential tools needed to recognize, understand, and work against the forces of poverty and economic injustice in the world, to work on behalf of the "least of these."  And she's learning this stuff at school, in first grade!  Indeed, God is doing good and holy things through our schools …

Recognizing the decline of the church as institution, and seeing God at work in non-church settings, has simultaneously humbled and excited me.  I'm not quite sure why or what it all means, but in these past few weeks my eyes have been opened anew to what God is doing in the church and in the world, and I am seeking faithful ways that I as a leader in Christ's church might together with others faithfully discern the path to which our Lord is calling our church.