Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the church going to make it??

Is the church going to make it? Is there any hope for us? Are we going to see the end of the 21st century?

It sure doesn’t seem like it if you were to believe all the blog posts and articles from church leaders and religious pundits these days. Their anxiety about the state of the Church is overwhelming. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s wrong. The church has always had a million problems, they admit, but ones we’re facing now are going to do us in! Here are some summaries of what I’ve heard:

The church, unable to learn the language of a digital, post-Christendom culture, hasn’t stayed relevant. Let’s face it, folks. We haven’t caught up with the times. We're still living in the Middle Ages. Our websites, if we even have them, are too dull. We don’t Tweet enough. We stay in our buildings or in front of our computers too much and therefore don’t get out in the coffee shops, craft beer pubs, and dog parks where people are. This is all due to the fact we’re stuck on models we developed in the fifties (that’s the 1850’s, mind you) and no one has thought about what’s happening right now.

The church hasn’t been doing enough service work…or at least hasn’t been visible enough about it. Don’t we realize that service projects in the community are clearly the best way to involve people in themission of Christ? If we were building more houses/marching in more parades/serving in more soup kitchens things wouldn’t be this way. More service work, especially when performed in matching t-shirts, will make us more relevant.

The church hasn’t figured out which style of worship it needs to have. Some say we need to keep it ancient and sacramental. Others hail Contemporary Post-modern Everything as the remedy that will suddenly give us traction. Keep the old hymnal! Get rid of all hymnals! Bring in the technology! Take it out! Whatever you do, get it right, because it’s do-or-die these days! Cry havoc and let loose the hounds of worship war!

The church doesn’t know how to reach/retain/enthrall/appeal to the prized Millennial generation. This is one of the most prevalent sources of anxiety. All the studies claim they’re leaving us, but no one can really explain why. Nevertheless, everyone is convinced it must be our fault that it’s happening. Yet the Millennials represent youth and youthfulness and a church has no future if it loses the approval of its young people, right? The Millennials are a uniform bloc, by the way, containing no variety within their ranks. In fact, you’ve probably spotted them roving the streets like a pack of feral dogs, looking for the newest indie coffee shop where they can hang out and be all postmodern.

The church has turned too many people away, as evidenced by the rise in numbers of those who claim “no religious affiliation” at all. Don’t we realize that people are finding more compelling sources for meaning-making elsewhere? Not only that. Everyone has figured out that church people are hypocritical, anyway (which of course we are). Our stances on “the issues” aren’t progressive enough. Or, wait, they’re too progressive, which is the reason behind the slow erosion between us and the culture we’re supposed to critique. Regardless, what we should really be worried about is that we come across as too inauthentic all the time. Don’t we know that everyone is really desiring authenticity? The Millennials certainly are! In fact, word on the street is that they’re seeking authentic relationships within community more than any other generation that has ever come along. Their knack for it even exceeds the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II, the people who have, by and large, been supporting the church and keeping it going for all these years. Don’t these old people realize how inauthentic they’ve become?

I must admit all this kvetching confuses me. It also puts me off. At some point the voices of fear and worry become so numerous I don’t know which direction I’m supposed to run first. Change the worship style? Do more service work? Change long-standing sacramental practices? Invest immediately in an electronic sign our front that looks all post-moderny?

I’m sure there is more than a bit of truth to each of these viewpoints, and it never hurts to shine the mirror of critique on oneself. The church dearly needs to listen to what its surrounding culture considers important and should always stretch itself learn to engage people where they are. Yet, I can’t help but feel that at some point in the past few years our well-intentioned self-reflection has turned into unproductive self-flagellation. Must we be to blame for all of the so-called problems we’re facing? Are we doing nothing right?

As I look back over some of the trends I’ve witnessed in my own life of ministry, I have come to believe that a good many of the challenges the church is facing today are actually not ones we’ve created. Moreover, I also think we’re doing a half-decent job of responding and adapting to them. While the people of God are never called to stick their heads in the sand, it is also helpful for us to realize that a lot of the things that buffet us that are really out of our control. They are socio-economic, demographic shifts that would cause any organization or individual considerable strain and stress. In fact, just about any of the concerns above could be voiced, with just a few changes in wording, by television and print media,  by civic organizations (Kiwanis, etc.) by many corporations, and by institutions of higher education, just to name a few.

So, in response to the issues named above, I offer a few alternate reasons why the church feels it might be struggling to find its footing at the moment. In doing so, I realize I’m shifting the blame away from the church and back onto “the times.” So be it. The times need that critical mirror, too. After all, Jesus didn’t beat himself up every time someone turned and walked away from what he was teaching.

It is far easier--and more attractive--to be self-sufficient (to live as a free individual) now than ever before in human history, and yet the church is inherently a community. Technology, among other factors, has provided us the ability to have self-contained (and self-absorbed) lives. Suburban living, too, presents all kinds of interesting challenges to human social structures that, until fairly recently, operated as mostly agrarian. We're not "joiners." These and other factors give us the illusion we don’t depend on each other. Yes, people connect online, blah, blah, blah. Yes, people still crave community. But overall people’s lives don’t overlap during the week with their co-religionists like they used to. We aren’t as constantly aware of the ways we actually do need other people. In a culture that prizes individual expression and personalized experiences, the church—which is fundamentally a community—is going to be swimming upstream. This isn’t the church’s fault.

Sundays are not “easy” for people anymore. Thanks to the legacy of Christendom, the church used to have a free day to gather and worship. People also used to have two days of “free” time every weekend. However, now a growing number of people—especially Millennials!—must work weekends. People’s lives (and their family budgets) have also been taken over by sports. Plenty of cranky pastors have lamented this drift for decades, but now it appears that even the sports community is waking up to the unseemly hold athletics has on our lives. To some degree this loss of privileged status in people’s calendars is somewhat helpful because it might have a distilling effect on the church. However, a community can only twist and change so much in order to provide new scheduling strategies which allow for the necessary time for critical relationship-building. At the end of the day there are still only 24 hours. People only have so much time to work with and time they’re able to give. This isn’t the church’s fault.

People are more affluent than they ever have been and have more options for spending their money than ever before. This factor partly ties into the one stated above, but reaches even wider. The church is swimming in a sea of other competitors. More personal disposable income has meant we are able to give more of our money to things like recreation and travel (which tend to consume us on the weekends…see above). I look at my own family’s expenditures and wonder if similar activities would have been possible for a family like ours 30 or 40 years ago. One result of all this? The definition of “regular” worship attendance or “regular” giving, even from highly committed people, has changed significantly. Attending worship once a month is considered “frequent,” and the church should give thanks for that. But, again, the church’s strength is in its relationships, and if people are nowadays around each other less often in church settings then it stands to reason that the relationships will be weaker. This isn’t the church’s fault.

Family structure has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. People are getting married later than ever, and having children later in life. They are also having fewer children. This is neither good nor bad, but it does have interesting implications for church life which, for better or worse, is very centered on supporting and nurturing families. There are faith communities out there that do a good job of ministering to and with single persons and people with no children, but by and large the programs of so many churches are based in family ministry. This is partly the church’s fault. The church needs to think carefully about how much it caters to families often to the exclusion of others. However, the larger demographic and social changes that have affected our membership and ministries are not in our control.

We crave instantaneous everything. The church is about slow growth. This isn't the church's fault.

These are only a few challenges I see contributing to the church’s sense of anxiety that have nothing to do with what we’re “doing.” They just are. In a nutshell, as individuals become more affluent, better educated, and longer-living, it is easier for them to reach the false conclusion that they don't need God. And professing a need for God is what churches are supposed to be about. All the congregations I have come into contact with have been full of good people who are working as hard as they can to adapt their message to a culture that finds new gods. I have seen very few examples of church folk who are willingly sticking their heads in the sand about it all.

Mind you, I have no hard data to back up any of these observations. I do not know if they are accurate or not. But one thing I do know is this: any ministry strategies that are borne out of anxiety or panic will not go well. By contrast, ministry that is birthed from hope and joy will eventually bear good fruit.

icon of the Pentecost
As it happens, this week is the week leading up to the Day of Pentecost, the day the church commemorates God’s gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the lives of the believers who were gathered in Jerusalem fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Pentecost was the event that helped the disciples make sense of what Jesus’ witness actually meant, that it wasn’t just a message for one time or one place or one people. It was the moment they were shaped as a community and pushed, with the energy of a hurricane wind, into their surrounding context. Somewhat like a fire, the Spirit danced and blazed paths for them even when the culture seemed to throw up obstacles all over the place.

Any reading of this Pentecost event in Scripture—and of the events that follow it—reveals an almost blundering group of broken but confident people who don’t really have much control over how the church is growing or changing. Some audiences listen, while others don't. What is missing in the Pentecost story, however, is a sense of anxiety. It just isn’t there. Clumsiness, conflict, tragedy, confusion…those are all present, but fear never really gets a mention. Another thing that doesn’t play a big part is self-blame.

Given all our modern-day hand-wringing about our ineptitude about discerning the times and finding the appropriate responses, maybe it’s high time to revisit the Pentecost story. Maybe this is the perfect time to remember that no amount of fretfulness get disciples anywhere. We can’t do too much about our tendency to make mistakes and our penchant for getting into disputes with each other over the issues. But we can remember that it is the Holy Spirit, not our programs and slick strategies, who is really in charge. We can remember that the Spirit continues to help us make sense of Jesus, both to ourselves and to the world. For in the end, that is the message we are sent to proclaim: Jesus is Lord. Sometimes people will listen. Sometimes they won't.

So, is the church going to make it? Is there really any hope for us?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. We are Pentecost people.
Paul preaching

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