Today I will conclude an essay that I began last week with an overview of studies that portend the demise of the church.
When pressed, my response to studies proclaiming the decline of religion in general or Christianity in particular, including the latest one, is “Meh.” I even shock myself at times with that response, so what follows is my attempt to understand how one can be as invested in the Christian church as I am and still not be moved by another declaration that it is on life support. Again, I will confine my remarks to the Christianity that I know and love.
One reason for the “Meh” is that much of what is being lost is not Christianity but Christendom. The original Christian community was a minority group willing to risk life, livelihood, and reputation to declare fealty to someone who had been branded a blasphemer and a seditious criminal. There are ongoing arguments of whether the situation of being outside of power and popularity is simply a matter of historical accident or whether that is, in fact, how the church is meant to be. When church and state become comfortable with each other, at times hardly distinguishable, does it come at too great a cost of the church’s theological integrity? If the church had strictly opposed slavery would there still be streets in the south with church buildings on every corner? If the church refused military service would the Senate or military still have chaplains? If the church provided healing and health to anyone in need or lent without expecting repayment, would we still be tax exempt, get housing allowance privileges, or PPP loans? Can there actually be a “Christian nation” if the church put the kinship of the Reign of God above national allegiance? If nothing else the demise of Christendom may offer the church a route toward renewing ourselves in a way more befitting followers of the crucified Christ.
But that path would be unpopular, which means loss of members and revenue, which means failure, according to our capitalistic manner of thinking. It is true that, in the book of Acts, the church’s faithfulness often resulted in the exultant note that many people were added to the church. But, that manner of measuring faithfulness goes away after the first few chapters, when the stories of persecution, martyrdom, diaspora, and internal discord begins to take over. And Paul’s extraordinary mission journeys end with Paul’s journey to Rome, to be imprisoned, tried, and possibly martyred. The myth of “success” – inscribed deeply into the church’s psyche by the Church Growth Movement – comes at a huge cost. Perhaps the question is not whether people are rejecting the church but whether people have actually ever seen the church.
I think a question for hand-wringers is whether they are grieving the loss of a Christianity that is inherently connected to Jesus Christ, or a commodified version of it.
On the other hand, the church has never been perfect, the relationship between followers of Christ and citizenship in the state has always been problematic, and despite it all there is still some very powerful, viable witness taking place in Christian circles. One thing churches are doing – which many external critics fail to recognize – is some powerful soul-searching. I wish my cousin would realize that Bishop Spong has already raised all of his objections about theism and, frankly, more insightfully and pointedly than he does. I wish my neighbor wouldn’t read an Op Ed by Bart Ehrman and imagine that the church has never heard of biblical criticism. And I wish my activist friends knew the economic analyses of Leonardo Boff, the womanist theology of Katie Geneva Cannon, and the eschatology of Barbara Rossing before they assume that all of the church is represented by the mansplaining likes of Franklin Graham and Tim LaHaye.
So, what do I make of the latest reports alleging “the godlessness of America”? I say “Meh,” if the question is whether I am concerned about the institutional predominance of the Christian church in America. I think a church that simply digs in and tries to preach the same thing “more harder” is ignoring real questions. But, a deeper response would go two ways. First, I feel repentant because the church has such a beautiful call to proclaim the joy and justice of the gospel as we live in the spirit of Christ. To a large extent, we have failed to do that very thing. But, second, I feel some hope, because a chastened church, a church that is open to honest questions and genuine criticisms – that’s a community that I’m all in on cultivating. Let’s have predominantly White churches doing serious audits of our history and complicity in White Supremacy – with an eye toward transformation. Let’s have a church interrogate our historic patriarchy, with more than just pointing at more female denominational leaders. Let’s have a church that values integrity over preserving convention. And let’s have a church that continues to reject the easy answers that we’ve often offered to complex questions, particularly if the point of the answer is to shame the one asking the question in the first place. None of these ideas is a prescription for church growth, but with this kind of energy, we would be the kind of community that we’re called to be.
Mark of St. Mark