by Pastor Doug Kings
Our online book discussion group is finishing up part 1 of Do I Stay Christian? by Brian McLaren. In this section McLaren is giving the reasons why he would say “No” to that question. After that he gives his reasons for saying “Yes.”
It’s been a tough slog! But even those who have disliked this section aren’t faulting McLaren for misinformation or exaggeration. In its nearly two-thousand-year history, Christianity in its various expressions has done a lot of horrible things, both to outsiders and to Christians themselves. And, as McLaren frankly shows, it’s hard to make the case that much has changed.
One of the group’s members shared an essay by Washington Post columnist Brian Broome. The article is titled Why the decline in church attendance won’t end here. It reads much like McLaren’s “No” section. Broome’s problems with Christianity are both theoretical and practical.
I was raised in a Christian household, and my family is still religious. But, at a certain point in my childhood, the whole thing stopped making sense to me. I couldn’t work out why a loving God would let so many children suffer. The idea of eternal life seemed to be a way for people to skirt their fear of death or assuage the pain of grief. I noticed that the things people told me God wanted were, more often than not, things that they wanted as well.
I didn’t give it up all at once. Like many people, I went on a spiritual quest. But, like some of those, I quit the hunt after a while. I stopped looking for the meaning of life and instead decided to just live it. I stopped looking for an afterlife and now just try to be a better person in this one.
Millions of people could tell this same story. And as the article’s title implies, more are doing so all the time. It seems like hardly a week goes by that I don’t see a story about the church’s decline in the US, often in the secular press. But as our experience has shown, it is very difficult for us within the church to honestly look at its faults. Broome concludes that to not do so, however, will only lead to one result.
Church attendance and membership have long been on the decline in America. My guess is that because many folks realize that fear is at the root of so much religious conviction, the proposition has become untenable. Those fears have led too many people of faith to police the way that others choose to live their lives. The trend away from church will likely continue. Most of us have enough fear and bullying in our lives already.
Looking back over church history, one sees again and again the rise of reform movements trying to get the church back on track. In the 4th century, the church’s becoming “mainstream”, especially in the cities of the Roman Empire, sparked a backlash. People who came to be known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went into the wilderness of Egypt and the Near East to get away from urban corruption and practice a faith closer to its spiritual roots. While church leaders saw Rome’s acceptance of Christianity as a triumph, these people viewed it as a disaster.
In the centuries that followed new orders arose repeatedly to address the church’s corruption and drift away from the gospel. The Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, and Jesuits each launched with these noble goals. The Protestant Reformation, of course, attempted to do the same thing but then splintered endlessly as new groups arose to address the failings of previous ones.
As I wrote to our book group this week, notice that in his essay Broome never disparages Jesus. Surveys usually find high regard for Jesus among those who have no use for Christianity or the church. Such reports often drive church people crazy, as do those who identify as “spiritual, not religious.” But something so pervasive deserves our attention, especially given the church’s history of oppression and abuse.
Bible scholars generally agree that Jesus made little if any effort to start a movement, let alone create an institution called the church. His sole intention was to preach that God’s kingdom was at hand, and show what it meant to live as if that was true. I think we need to take that fact more seriously.
In his prison cell in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was contemplating both the rise of the modern secular world and the ignominious failure of German Lutheran and Catholic churches to resist, let alone stop, the catastrophic rise of Hitler and Naziism. Perhaps, he wrote to his friends, it’s time for a “religionless Christianity.” People raised in the church can’t even imagine what that would mean.
During my years in the ministry, it has been difficult but finally impossible not to realize that most of the church’s efforts and resources go into preserving itself: building and maintaining buildings, paying salaries, holding meetings, and endlessly reorganizing itself. While that may have been appealing, today most people just aren’t interested.
And remaining contained within the church’s walls has also disconnected us from the world around us. The late Episcopal Bishop and author John Shelby Spong relates in the introduction to his last book, Unbelievable, a conversation he had with this adult daughter. His jaw dropped when she said, “Dad, the questions the church is trying to answer, people aren’t even asking anymore.” How have we not noticed?
A group member told us of a recent conversation about salvation with her 18-year-old granddaughter. “Saved from what? Saved for what?” was her reply. Youth ask the questions their elders are too polite, embarrassed, or afraid to ask.
“What is the gospel?” I asked at the end of our last session. What would we say to Mr. Broome to get him to reconsider his decision? to come to our church? “We’re so friendly.” I’ve heard that at every church I’ve been in—but so is the corner tavern. Or in our case, “We have a great coffee hour.” True, but I doubt in the long run that’s going to work as a foundational purpose or mission. Nor will having a nursery, pretty windows, off-street parking, a good choir, or any of the countless things I’ve heard churches obsess about over the years.
At one point in his “No” section, McLaren says that now more than ever our deeply troubled world needs religions that teach the value of loving our planet and all the people on it.
And Christianity could be one of those religions…. But the odds are against it doing so. In its dominant forms, it has become conservative, nostalgic, arthritic, cramped, stuck. Its anchor is too heavy to lift. It is going nowhere.
And I am left wondering if that “too heavy” anchor isn’t the church itself and if, like Bonhoeffer, it isn’t time to cut it loose.
Blessings in your life and ministry.