It was in the middle of a general BS session about the church. We were bemoaning the decline of the mainstream church. In my own small denomination, the North American church has declined by between 35% and 40% in the past 40 years.We're small to begin with so that really eats away at a critical mass that can support an ongoing denominational program.
We are not alone. A report to this year's Episcopal General Convention stated that losses exceed gains by about 16,000/year. They pointed out that this is the size of a small diocese.
The "big" religious news recently has been the rise of that group that is being called "The Nones," those who reply "None" to their religious preference. They have grown and continue to expand.
I was waxing sadly to my friend about how it feels to have watched that over the past 40+ years since I was ordained. This has, for all intents and purposes, happened on my generation's "watch." The culture and society of the Western World has shifted so quickly and dramatically- seismically, comes to mind- that the church was unable to keep up. We have seen so many things change- and we have tried to change with them.
All have failed in the long term. Nothing lasts longer than a decade any more. The cycle seems to be moving back toward more traditional worship, for example, after years of the contemporary style. Small group ministries are still around, but they are not the center like they were.
At this moment, I actually have no idea what the big, "In-Thing" is that church growth people are talking about. I know some of the movements that have been happening, but as far as the "experts" and "consultants" go- I have been out of touch and wouldn't even know where to start.
For at least the second or third time in 40+ years a number of church denominations are "restructuring" to be more able to respond to the changing scene around us.
Which brings me to the "Aha!" I had.
It was about this point in the discussion that I sat there and shook my head, resigned, hopeless.
"We tried everything we knew how to do over these years," I said. "The conservatives tried all they knew; the liberals all they knew; the middles tried both. And nothing has worked. We are still at this point today."
I give up! I have no idea what works. I just don't know!At which point a weight lifted and a light came on in the back sections of my brain. I really don't know. It isn't in my hands, if it ever was. Not because I am now retired and not in any leadership roles; not because I'm stupid or out of touch with the society or culture; not because I am liberal and not conservative.
No, it isn't in my hands because it never was. WE have tried everything we have known how to do on both ends of the theological spectrum and in-between. WE have spent incredible amount of time, energy, and resources and we are still where we are.
Maybe, just maybe we are right where we are supposed to be today!You mean declining? You mean having lost our central place in the society, the place of setting the rules and directions? That is where we are supposed to be?
Maybe. And the reason I say that is simple- that is where we are. Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today, the Twelve-Step programs tell me. Things are just as they are and who am I to say I know better than God?
But of course what is "long-run" to humans (say the past 50 years or so, i.e. most of my lifetime) is but the short-term in God's work. It is still an ongoing event. The church is changing, the church is struggling with our place in the world as the world itself changes.
Maybe it's time to stop looking for the answers or the right program or a scapegoat. (John Hus was burned at the stake as one of those scapegoats.) I am becoming very aware that these don't exist.
What does exist is what is right in front of us-
- the lost and lonely
- the hungry and homeless
- the suffering and struggling
- the hopeless and dying
- you and me
That I have done for these past 40 years. That I continue to do in non-institutional church settings where I am now called to work.
Are churches still dying? Are denominations shrinking?
Yes, but those are institutions. It isn't up to us to build them. (Remember- Jesus told Peter that he was the rock on which Jesus himself would build the church!!!) It is up to remain faithful to the call to care with God's love!
And for that all I can do is give thanks that I have been part of it for so many years!!!