I received an email from a friend of mine two days ago, after the 2014 Yearbook and Directory for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came out, which contained some dispiriting numbers about membership decline. In the email my friend noted that, year-over-year, our loss of Total and Participating Membership sits close to 20 percent, but that our Average Worship Attendance is only a little over 4 percent. That is a shocking loss to absorb in a single year.
My friend then went on to point out that over the past ten years our denomination has declined by 35 percent in Total Membership, 38 percent in Participating Membership, and 28 percent in Average Worship Attendance. Obviously, you don't get to have many more decades like that and expect to survive.
But for Protestant mainline denominations in America [i.e., United Methodist Church (UMC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ (Congregationalist), the Disciples of Christ)], this kind of decline is different only in degree, not in kind from what we've been experiencing for the last forty-five years.
My friend and I continued to discuss the problem via the electronic mail machine. But the upshot of the conversation was something like: "So, Mr. Post-Denominational, you're supposed to know about this stuff, and with the book being released on Friday, maybe you ought to write something about this."
But see, this is the weird part: The whole time I was looking through the Yearbook before the email even came, and getting a little freaked out, I kept thinking to myself, "So, Mr. Post-Denominational, you know about this stuff -- you wrote a book about it -- about how just this kind of information shouldn't freak the church out. And here you are freaking out, doing the same thing you tell other people to quit doing."
Duly chastised about my own hypocrisy, and after I said I'd write about the latest distressing news, I quieted my mind for a moment and composed myself. Here's what I think:
1. Responding in fear is fine. Saying "Fear not! God can bring life out of death" isn't saying that you shouldn't ever be afraid. Fear is an instinctual reaction to stimuli in the environment. You can't stop the initial irresistible urge to respond in fear any more than you can force your salivary glands not to start cranking out spit when you walk past a Krispy Kreme.
2. Living with fear is an affront to the gospel. Saying "Fear not! God can bring life out of death" is calling for a more permanent orientation to your environment. It says that while I can't resist the instinctual fear of the moment, I will not live there. I will not let the fear define my embrace of the present or my hope for the future.
3. Some of this is on God. This is God's church ... all of it. It's not my congregation, not my denomination, not my Protestant mainline. As such, God gets to take the credit and the responsibility for what ultimately becomes of it. When it goes well, Christians are prone to saying things like, "God has blessed us," or "We give God the glory." But when things go in the toilet, very rarely do I hear Christians say anything so honest as, "We worked our butts off, but God saw fit to curse us," or "It sucks being us right now, we're happy to give God the blame on this one." I suspect I'll get nasty emails about this, but if we've done the best we know how to do and the whole thing caves in over the next ten years, that's on God. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but you don't get to have it both ways: Good = God; Bad = our screw up.
4. The church is a tool of ministry. The church is not the gospel. The gospel is the gospel. For good and for ill, the church is the current framework through which the gospel is embodied (or is not embodied) in the world. Whereas the good news of the reign of God is necessary, the church is not. The church is a delivery system for the gospel. Whatever happens to mainline Protestant denominations in general, or individual congregations in particular, God's determination to reign over a just and peaceful world is inexorable. In the end, our faith is a profession of our conviction that God will get what God wants.
5. There are different kinds of growth. The kind of growth that makes the work congregations do interesting often eludes the people doing the evaluation because those kinds of growth defy quantification. That is to say, there are any number of areas of growth that are qualitative, which -- because evaluating them is impossible to reduce to statistical representation -- means they get overlooked as meaningful indicators of health. By what algorithm, for instance, do we judge whether our people are being better parents? Children? Partners? Spouses? Friends? Bosses? Employees? Students? Just because the numbers aren't what they used to be doesn't mean that God isn't doing some amazingly cool things through us right now.
6. There are different kinds of decline. In the same way that not all growth is good, not all decline is bad. Sometimes having people move on in order to find a place that better meets their spiritual needs is healthy. Nobody should be in favor of running people off just because they disagree. However, there are issues of justice about which a failure to compromise is a faithful response. Again, if we're living out our commitments as faithfully as we know how, then we'll have to believe that God is there leading us in the midst of it all, and that God's present in the fallout as well as in the success.
7. If these numbers actually do signal some kind of death, so what? We're followers of Jesus, so death is what we do best. We know what those laboring under a perpetual cloud of fear cannot know: God's favorite artistic medium is corpses. Resurrection is nothing but the cosmic joke of ripping life from the cold, firm grasp of death. How can a people who gather every week around a table that reminds us of the ultimate nature of our commitment, that institutionalizes our embrace of powerlessness, be afraid of death?
So, the numbers look bad.
If you want to be afraid, be afraid. Believe me, I completely understand.
But if you somehow think that living with that persistent hand-wringing fear is going to help you through the next ten years, and wind up on the other side with everything you care about still intact, then I don't know how to help you.
It's an exciting, if sometimes harrowing, time to be the church. But when has that ever been anything other than the case?