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Rev. Peter M. Wallace Headshot

The Institution May Be Dying, But the Need Is Not

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"There has never been a more challenging time in [fill in the blank]. Everyone is scrambling to find the right way to connect to an audience that has fractured and fragmented to numerous different platforms."

That's how Edward Loh of Motor Trend magazine began his editor's note in the July issue. He filled that blank with "automotive publishing." But how many times in recent days have we heard the same description attached to any number of formerly stalwart societal and cultural institutions?

Print magazines hemorrhaging subscribers are scrambling to find ways to reinvent themselves, whether through tablet apps or websites or videos. But then, so are daily newspapers and the traditional television networks, whose ratings even for the most popular shows fall far below what they were in the heyday of the last century despite a much larger population. And some radio station conglomerates are losing more money than was conceivable even a few years ago.

The institutions that only a decade or two ago were considered pillars of American society seem to be collapsing around us. It may not be a new phenomenon -- think of the glory days of the American railroads, for example -- but it seems that more major institutions are declining at a more spectacular rate than at any time in memory.

In every case, of course, those who are heavily invested in their particular declining institution are panicking, desperately attempting to figure out how to stem the unyielding tide, or else how to bail out and do something different. Some of the creative responses to this phenomenon are gaining some traction, but others are failing miserably.

And yet the reality some fail to acknowledge in this midst of this chaos is that the need or function all these declining institutions used to fulfill remains. People are simply choosing different ways, different platforms, to meet these needs.

For instance, rather than buying a copy of Motor Trend on the newsstand, those interested in automotive news may simply surf relevant websites or download an app or follow a related Twitter feed. In the same way, people continue to want to access news and opinion, but fewer are willing to pay for and read a dead-tree newspaper to fulfill that need. And who needs an AM/FM radio when one can listen to whatever one wants whenever one wants via podcasts, Pandora, MP3 files or some other means?

Of course, there's another major institution that everyone includes in such doom-and-gloom scenarios: the church. Though America is still broadly considered a religious nation, statistics reveal a major shift. A recent Gallup study was headlined, "Most Americans Say Religion Is Losing Influence in U.S.; But 75% say American society would be better off if more Americans were religious." For many years, mainline denominations have lost members at alarming rates, but recently more conservative churches have been suffering the same phenomenon. No matter what denomination or faith tradition, organized religion is declining.

And yet people still yearn for a connection to their spiritual core, a relationship with the reality beyond themselves. They believe there is something more in life than the physical, but they are finding other ways and platforms to find it and satisfy their need. Thus we hear endlessly about the "Nones," those who in personality profiles select no particular brand of religion, but rather consider themselves "Spiritual But Not Religious." Such people can be very frustrating to those of us still involved in the institution, and we all know some of them.

For centuries, the church has been the primary delivery system for Christian faith and spirituality, but now people are finding fulfillment in other ways, individually and communally. So, like the automotive magazine industry and all the other struggling institutions, the church is "scrambling to find the right way to connect to an audience that has fractured and fragmented to numerous different platforms."

There are innumerable reasons why organized religion is declining, many of them having to do with the abuse of power such structures can enable. Vast swaths of people are simply turning away from the judgmentalism and rigid views held by large portions of the church.

Yet the need remains. So is there a way for organized religion to recast itself to fulfill the need in new ways? In the circles I frequent, this is a constant topic of discussion.

Needless to say, I'm personally invested in the church. The weekly radio program I produce and host is firmly entrenched in the mainline church. What's more, I am in the process toward ordination in the Episcopal priesthood, and you can hardly be more institutional than that. At my age I probably will not see where all this goes, but I find the process thrilling nevertheless. After all, author Phyllis Tickle likens this time to another great Reformation, and one gets to experience something like that only every 500 years or so.

In my radio interviews with various church leaders, as well as in my seminary classes with fellow students, I find many people are talking about getting back to the roots of what the church is about. Church buildings may be glorious, but their walls often seem intended more to keep their members safe within them rather than to enable them to move out beyond them to love and serve the world.

What would Jesus say? An account in Luke 10:1-24 offers a vision of what he may have intended the church to look like.

In managing the ever-growing impact of his ministry, Jesus appoints 70 followers to go out in pairs to every town around them. He instructs them carefully, explaining that he is sending them out into the world "like lambs into the midst of wolves." He tells them to take nothing with them -- no money, no extra clothing or other items -- and offers clear directions regarding what they are to do or say. Their purpose is to minister in his name, caring for the sick and needy, preaching his message of hope in the commonwealth of God. Some will accept their ministry, others will reject them -- and you know what happened to Jesus himself eventually.

These 70 followers do as Jesus says and return joyfully, offering reports of the positive responses as they served and taught the people. The writer notes that Jesus' own heart is filled with joy, as he explains that their joy in fulfilling his mission is unmatched in human history. Even the prophets and kings yearned for this joyful realization of the reign of God, but now the disciples have seen it with their own eyes.

Jesus sees that his mission is being fulfilled, that his purpose in coming is being realized as his followers go forth and serve those in need. They have caught his vision and are running with it. They are finally fulfilling the will of God on this earth, thereby satisfying a yearning that has existed among God's people for centuries.

Perhaps something like that lies ahead for the church in the 21st Century. In many places and in many ways, it's already happening.

I sat next to a young minister at a preaching conference recently who told me that in his 20s he had given up on the church of his childhood. He saw no relevance in it. He could fulfill any spiritual needs on his own in any number of ways. But after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he was so impressed by the ways numerous churches mobilized to offer aid, in the immediate aftermath and for several years in the rebuilding, that he decided to get involved again.

For him, as well as for many others, this is what church is supposed to be. Not comfortable gatherings for self-improvement, not a means to enjoy feel-good sentiments, but equipped communities mobilizing together in Jesus' name to serve in real and loving ways in this world of need. As a result, the last thing this young man ever expected is happening: He is in seminary preparing to become a pastor in a church that will no doubt be something entirely different than he ever imagined.

Can you see Jesus smiling?