Here are a few final thoughts I have on why nobody wants to go to Church anymore and what the Church and leaders must do to reverse the decline and maybe even reclaim some of the 35 million Americans who have departed.
1. Stop using the Bible and worship to mask prejudice or promote a political agenda. When Christians and Christian leaders maintain, for example, that being gay is in violation of the clear teaching of the Bible, they really only succeed in undermining the very authority to which they appeal. They cannot say "the Bible condemns homosexuality" without also saying "the Bible condones murdering those who are." The very same scripture that declares homosexuality is an offense to God also declares that capital punishment is the deserved punishment. (Leviticus 20:13).
It is a phony charade to say their authority is the Bible itself when they are willing only to enforce half the injunction in Leviticus. In other words, if they have reinterpreted the text about killing homosexuals, which of course they have or our society would lock them up for murder, then it is time they reinterpret the entire text, concluding those who wrote Leviticus were just limited in their ancient misconceptions and misperceptions of human biology and maturation.
It's time the church end prejudice and discrimination against gay people.
Furthermore, people come to church to worship... to experience God. They do not need someone telling them how "real" Christians should vote. It's not only demeaning, it happens to be a violation of the wall of church/state separation.
Many people feel the same revulsion I do at the offensive actions of the Westboro Baptist Church in Florida. But there is a sense in which the leaders and members of that church act with more consistency than Christians and Christian leaders in almost all other fundamentalist churches. In fundamentalist churches, for example, judgment and discrimination are cleverly veiled behind meaningless clichés, such as, "We hate sin; but we love sinners."
To adorn one's prejudice in pious platitudes is not only disingenuous, it is just plain dishonest.
2. End the war on science, biology and psychology. I will be so glad when people in the Church stop saying the universe is under 10,000 years old and that Genesis is a scientific textbook. Neither is true and telling people of faith they must believe such things only discredits Christianity. It undermines genuine faith, too. No person should be expected "to believe what they know ain't so," as Mark Twain put it. Science, biology, psychology are not the Church's enemies.
3. Be who you are and stop pretending to be who you are not. I think some readers thought I had contradicted myself in Part One when, near the beginning of the post, I encouraged churches to use technology in worship and then, later in the post, made the suggestion that mainline Protestant churches should stop trying to hold contemporary worship in a high church setting.
Here's a little more clarity on what I was trying to say. To me, the contemporary worship thing has been a colossal failure in most mainline Protestant churches. It has proven to be the proverbial shoving of a square peg into a round hole.
In most mainline Protestant churches, for example, it will not work to try and create a cozy coffeehouse atmosphere in a traditional high church setting -- as in the removal of robes and pulpit furniture, the hanging video screens, the banging on drums and all to what many members would describe as "7/11-hundred" music -- "seven words repeated eleven hundred times" -- and this, all too often, under the direction of what might be described as a mediocre karaoke band. Contemporary worship -- the once-proclaimed redeemer of the dying worship experience in traditional churches -- has all but killed worship for everybody.
Admittedly, what I'm describing is not true everywhere. Yes, some traditional churches have been successful in adding contemporary worship. Where it has worked, however, you will typically find widespread support for it even among long-timers at the church. Further, you will find a praise band with superior skill and talent. Further still, you will find a worship leader with the ability to take familiar hymns of faith, reframe them in a contemporary sound, and do both in a way that inspires people, instead of offending them.
In most traditional churches attempting contemporary worship, however, you do not find any of the above. My point simply is, be who you are. If you are a traditional church in a high church setting with stained-glass windows, you make a grave mistake whenever you assume that all young adults want a worship experience that resembles a rock concert with a religious twist. They do not. As a matter of fact, recent research shows many young adults prefer traditional church where hymns, confessions, and, yes, even periods of long silence, prayer, and reflection are a regular part of worship.
4. It's time for a new or revised Christian theology. It took years for sincere Christians to let go of their devotion to the King James Version of the Bible. Today, we have more versions than there are varieties of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.
My feeling is, it is past time for the Church to revisit and revise Christian theology. I have no idea how to do this, since the Councils were closed hundreds of years ago and declared by some to be infallible. Besides, the Church is likely too diverse for this to ever be the case again.
The answer may lie in each denomination choosing to explore new ways of understanding the Christian story and its message of salvation. I'm convinced that, if the Church is to have a future in the modern world, it must re-interpret the doctrines of the faith in light of our modern understanding of the origin of the universe, the human species, including biology and developmental psychology. Doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, Original Sin, Salvation, Resurrection, Eschatology, etc., all should be placed under the microscope of critical thinking in the context of our modern world. Additionally, the Church must help its followers understand and embrace the religious diversity that exists here in America. Gone are the days when the Church could get away with the assumption, "We're right; all other religions are wrong," and then set out to convert everyone else to a Christian belief system. If America is to provide leadership to the rest of the world, then our leadership should include showing the world how we live within and embrace the beautiful diversity that is America.
I believe this more strongly today than at any other time in my life. I feel certain that the Church's greatest threat to its survival is the Church itself. It is not another religion or the secularization of our society and culture but the refusal of Christian leaders to look seriously at the outdated beliefs of its own faith tradition. Hard questions must be asked as in, for example, whether the doctrine of "Original Sin" makes sense any longer as an explanation of the problem of human evil.
If this does not happen, and happen soon, the Church will more and more become a relic of irrelevancy. Oh sure, there will always be churches. But, without a revision of the Church's theology so that it makes more sense with what we know today from cosmology, biology, and psychology, the Church in America will go the way of churches in Europe.
5. The gatekeepers of theological and doctrinal thought must lead the way, believing the current crisis is a call to reexamine the Christian story. It is a time not to "change the locks and secure the fortress," as Pope Benedict tried but failed to do. It is a time instead to replace the doors, as Pope Francis seems to be trying to do.
"What you resist persists," or so they say in the east. Church leaders have a choice, as I see it. They can resist what's happening in the Church... to the Church... mistakenly assuming it's a demonic attack or a divinely-orchestrated process of separating the "professing" Christians from those who are the "real" practicing Christians. But, if they choose this course, they will lose. They will die as a force of relevancy in the modern world.
It is my hope instead that they will step beyond their collective ego and embrace what's happening with faith. I sincerely hope they will believe, to borrow the words of J. J. Goldberg, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, "The community's gatekeepers must trust that whatever is coming is what's meant to be."
Shouldn't Church leaders be expected to have faith, too? To trust in God, believing that the winds of change are actually the breath of God blowing the Church toward a new and higher consciousness... toward a new and more modern understanding of what Christians call "the greatest story ever told?"
6. Finally, know that the Church's decline could never mean the death of Christ. Jesus died once. But his presence and his teachings are as alive today as at any other time in human history. In other words, the Church is declining, but God is not dying.
What's dying are old ways of understanding God... old ways of believing the story of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection.
What's dying are the narrow, bigoted ways of Christians in the past with their exclusivist notions that those who do not believe what they believe are heathen and bound for hell.
What will resurrect out of the present "declining and dying" Church will be a new Church more glorious than ever before in the history of Christianity.
That is my hope, my prayer, and that to which I have committed my energies. While I understand why many have left the Church, I have chosen instead to stay. Many others have, too, and it is our hope to be advocates for change.
Change is afoot, my friend. The only question is whether today's Church will be in step with it or die on a self-created and imaginary battlefield where both the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are, ironically, the same guys.