by Pastor Doug Kings

Nearly every media source I follow had a story recently about a new report from the Pew Research Center. The finding that got the most attention was this: given current trends, by 2070 those identifying as Christian will, for the first time, make up less than half the US population, and possibly only one-third. Further, this will occur not because some other religion has grown larger but because of the increase in those with no religious affiliation at all.

If you’ve been reading my Reflections for a while, or following these religious developments, this report will come as no surprise. Churches overall have been experiencing declining membership for fifty years or more and there is no indication the next fifty will be any different. And there are signs that the pandemic has accelerated this trend, so the Pew report may be, if anything, optimistic.

What puzzles and exasperates me is how little churches themselves are engaged with this issue, which is—bluntly—the question of their survival. In our own Lutheran context, I continually read of the drip-drip of congregations shutting down (now marked with a rite of “Holy Closure”). But in our local synod, what has been getting months of attention is the process of deciding what to do with the windfall from selling one such closed church’s multimillion-dollar property. I guess there is a silver lining in every cloud.

Several months ago, my seminary alma mater announced, without any prior notice, that it had sold its multimillion-dollar campus to a nearby university. It has no firm plans about what will happen when the sale is finalized. Of course, the sale is due to declining enrollment making the facility unaffordable, but little is said about this. Instead, a PR puff-piece on its website describes the seminary as “a school in motion”, with the sale being “a new beginning” leading to “a future with new possibilities.”

For churches in decline, the primary issue seems to be management. As I wrote earlier, the ELCA agreed this summer to begin a process leading to something called a “renewed” Lutheran church. Practically what that means is deciding how to shrink the church’s administrative structure to reflect its much-reduced membership. We now have more synods, bishops, and assorted church bureaucrats and support staff than we need or can afford. How restructuring the denomination will lead to “renewing” it was left unsaid. But addressing the meaning of this dramatic decline was no where on the agenda.

This reality is not unique to the US. Unless you ignore media altogether (not an indefensible practice these days), you saw something of the religious rituals surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth. I doubt if there have ever been as many worship events broadcast live in such a short time. They included four services of “prayer and reflection” in each of the United Kingdom’s “nations”, the London funeral at Westminster Abbey, and the committal at Windsor castle.

Great Britain’s church ritual life was on full display, the services carried out with reverence, historic pageantry, and jaw dropping precision. In the case of the funeral, an essentially very traditional worship service, hundreds of thousands watched together on large video screens erected in London and across the country, while hundreds of millions watched on television or online around the world. What more could a church ask for?

Yet, the Church of England is, by any numerical measure, in worse shape than churches in the US, and its decline has been going on much longer. And if one reflects on these services, they point to why this is so. However meaningful and well carried out, such worship has little to connect with the lives of most people. The liturgical and biblical language (in King James English) is now foreign to nonchurch goers. The dramatic rituals and costumes speak of another time.

The disconnect between the church and ordinary people was only reinforced by the sight of church pews filled with the elite of British society, along with global movers and shakers. And while the queen’s sincere faith and dedication to her job was appropriately lauded, everyone knows that she was one of the richest persons in the world, who lived a life of privilege and comfort. Yet she was considered head of the church and “defender of the faith.”

Obviously, the situation of the church in Britain is unique and differs in significant ways from the church in the US. Yet the basic issue is the same: the church is viewed by most people as an esoteric organization, speaking a strange language of strange concepts, often little understood or believed in by its own members. However, the church claims to follow a man, known as a poor carpenter and rabbi, who drew crowds so large they could hardly be contained. A big disconnect has happened somewhere.

The story is told that after a long slump, Green Bay Packers’ legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, called a team meeting. The situation was so bad Lombardi believed that they needed to return to the most basic game fundamentals. He stood in front of the team, ball in hand, and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” The church is in such a situation today. It needs to rediscover its football and be prepared to leave aside a lot of the other stuff its accumulated along the way.

Blessings in your life and ministry.