We’ve all heard it before, and probably even have said it ourselves: The church is dying.
This diagnosis is based on troubling symptoms we’ve seen in recent years. Worship attendance is down, fewer people are participating in church programming, and an alarming number of congregations have even shuttered their doors.
These trends are undeniable. But what do they indicate? Are they truly harbingers of the rise of secularism or a growing indifference to Christianity? Is it the church that’s dying or is it something else?
It turns out, when we say the church is dying, we’re not telling the whole story. Consider these findings from recent surveys from the Barna Research Group and the Pew Research Center about the state of the church in America today:
- While participation in Mainline Protestant churches is in decline, the same is not true of many non-denominational churches in America. Outside of the US, some church traditions, notably Pentecostalism, have grown dramatically in recent years.
- Suspicion of institutional religion has never been higher, though such suspicion does not correlate to atheism or even a general lack of interest in spirituality. People are leaving the church but still longing for God.
- Even as fewer church attenders are participating in Sunday school and weekday Bible studies, there has been a significant uptick in interest in education outside of formal degree programs, as is evident from the boom of platforms like TED, Great Courses, Crash Course, Coursera, and others.
- Less than 50% of Gen Xers and Millennials who regularly attend church report being members of a given congregation. For many Gen Zers, the idea of institutional membership, whether ecclesial or otherwise, is foreign.
- Church browsing is now the norm. Almost 40% of churched adults report regularly attending multiple congregations and many more participate in programming at a church other than the one they are members at.
- Especially since the start of the pandemic, church goers are less inclined to think of the church building as an essential ingredient for their spiritual formation. Their thinking is shifting towards when they encounter God, not
- Politics is now upstream of religion for many American Christians meaning that congregations are increasingly red or In those few congregations that are still purple, the connection between the Gospel and social issues is often deemed to be too controversial to address head on.
This data suggests that what is dying is a particular mode of doing education, formation, liturgy, music, and preaching that are rooted in thinking that is culturally narrow and theologically unimaginative. What’s dying is a brand of Christianity whose identity is wrapped up in American (white) individualism and the presumption that the values of the church would always be supported by the broader culture. What’s dying are old metrics of measuring spiritual vitality and the impact of the Gospel. What’s dying is the notion that the predominantly white, Mainline Protestant church is the only game in town. What’s dying is the notion that a strategic plan, a capital campaign, or a new (younger male) head of staff is all that’s needed to turn around declining church attendance.
If this is the state of the church today, how then do we speak truthfully about the task that’s before us? What does it mean for many of us to be serving institutions that are dying even as God’s Spirit is living and active in other places and with other communities?
First, let’s remind ourselves that the need for the church to die to itself and become something new is not an unexpected crisis brought about by the confluence of a global pandemic and racial and political unrest. The church has been in a process of radical change and evolution since its inception. Much of what we consider to be “too sacred to change” in the church today would have been utterly foreign to believers some 100 years ago, let alone earlier. For instance, the organ, now considered untouchable in many big steeple churches, used to be considered a secular instrument and was barred from use in religious contexts. Moving toward radical change in how we do church is not a sign that the church is dying, but a courageous embodiment of the conviction that “the church must always be reformed” (Ecclesia semper reformanda), a phrase popularized by Karl Barth.
Second, let’s lean into our training in pastoral care. One of the hardest tasks but great privileges of pastoral leadership is journeying with families through the death of loved ones. In those contexts, we know how important it is to create space for mourning, to acknowledge pain, and to celebrate the hope of the resurrection. We should try to do the same for church ministries that are dying. Let’s create space to eulogize what God has done through these ministries in the past, let’s acknowledge the grief some will feel when that particular form of ministry ends, and let’s long for the new thing that God might do in their place.
Third, it might be time to change our metaphor. Metaphors like “the church is dying” can be evocative, painting a picture with words in a way that helps us understand a situation. But if metaphors frame how we think about a problem, they also inform how we go about trying to solve it. When we assume that the church is dying, we can inadvertently come to think of ministry as palliative care. All our energy tends to get focused on either lamenting that the church just isn’t what it used to be or trying to alleviate pain and discomfort in the church’s final days.
What if we started using the metaphor, the church is lying fallow? As any farmer knows, a fallow field is not a dead field, but a dormant one. And during this time of dormancy, you don’t sit back and lament your lack of crops; rather, you get to work nurturing and cultivating the soil so that during the next growing season, it will yield an even more abundant harvest. What can we be doing to cultivate the spiritual soil of our communities?
Or, what if we said the church is like a lump of clay being remolded by a potter? If we lived into this metaphor, we wouldn’t be so anxious about the passing away of certain old forms of the clay that we once knew and loved; rather, the metaphor would encourage us to roll up our sleeves and join God at the potter’s wheel, dirtying our hands as the clay slip of the church is fashioned into a new and more beautiful vessel.
Changing our metaphors can be the first step in more fully telling the truth about what’s going on with the church today and how we can live and lead in such a time as this.