by Pastor Doug Kings
This past week three different media stories were sent to me by church people about upheaval in churches and the decline in worshipers and membership. They were from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal. At the same time, I found a related article in The Washington Post. Obviously, this is a story that has the mainstream media’s attention.
But in reality, this “story” has been developing for decades. All of the articles had some awareness that cultural changes have been playing an important part in the decline of organized religion. In other words, “going to church” as part of one’s lifestyle just fit with the society of the 1950s and 60s (the time of the church’s heyday in the US) better than it does now.
As historians point out, however, that period was a fluke. Church attendance in the US had never been that high before. It was also a fluke internationally. Not only did other Western countries not experience a religious revival but their longtime decline simply continued. So, the increasing religious “disinterest” in the US of the past fifty years could be seen as our catching up with the rest of the world.
That historical perspective is important because it refutes a common belief found in all these articles. Which is that churches are in decline because there is something newly wrong with American culture. The Atlantic article provides a good example.
[The recent book The Great Dechurching] suggests that the defining problem driving out most people who leave is … just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success….
The problem in front of us is not that we have a healthy, sustainable society that doesn’t have room for church. The problem is that many Americans have adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.
The tragedy of American churches is that they have been so caught up in this same world that we now find they have nothing to offer these suffering people that can’t be more easily found somewhere else. American churches have too often been content to function as … an organization of detached individuals who meet together for religious services that inspire them, provide practical life advice, or offer positive emotional experiences. Too often it has not been a community that through its preaching and living bears witness to another way to live.
But American culture has always been individualistic. America was long known as the “land of opportunity.” The lifestyle criticized here is just the most recent expression of that philosophy. When have Americans not prioritized “professional and financial success”? The Man Nobody Knows was a bestseller in 1925, which among other things, described Jesus as “the world’s greatest business executive” and “the founder of modern business.” Throughout history, churchgoing was a part of the “successful” lifestyle. Today, for whatever reason, not so much.
Most of the Atlantic article seems to imply that if churches could make some changes, they could restore their previous status. But then in the last paragraph it presents a more realistic, and I would say more hopeful, vision.
The great dechurching could be the beginning of a new moment for churches, a moment marked less by aspiration to respectability and success, with less focus on individuals aligning themselves with American values and assumptions. We could be a witness to another way of life outside conventionally American measures of success. Churches could model better, truer sorts of communities, ones in which the hungry are fed, the weak are lifted up, and the proud are cast down. Such communities might not have the money, success, and influence that many American churches have so often pursued in recent years. But if such communities look less like those churches, they might also look more like the sorts of communities Jesus expected his followers to create.
Most New Testament scholars agree that Jesus had no clear blueprint for what his followers should do after he was gone. The communities and churches that developed after him came in countless shapes and sizes. Most were small and gathered in people’s homes or even outdoors. That diversity remained for the first few centuries until Christianity was incorporated as the religion of the Roman Empire. Then church life became standardized with formal buildings, set rituals, and official clergy and bishops.
That Christianity seems to be coming to an end. It won’t disappear entirely, but for many what it means to be Christian is likely to be understood much more broadly than in the past. Which means that one question confronting us will be: If being Christian doesn’t mean “going to church”, what does it mean? I think that is a good question to ask, and to answer it we’re going have to both go back to the beginning and become fully aware of the world in which we live today.
Blessings in your life and ministry.