The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead. Or at least every marker we would hold up as a sign of life is in decline. Membership is down across the board, and worship attendance is but of fraction of what it once was. Budgets are in decline as congregations and denominations struggle to find ways to support their ministries and leaders.

On top of that, nearly every denomination is fighting within itself. Leaders and laity a like are asking not “if we split” but talking about “when we split.”

Of course, this is not news. Even if saying it so bluntly causes you to gasp, we have known that the church is dead for some time, and known it deep in our bones. Each year the anxiety builds towards budgeting season, and every pastoral transition brings a whole new season of “visioning.” Lay leaders are hard to come by, and those who do say “yes” seem to be the same ones year in and year out. Words like change, relevance, adaptation, and even mission fill board minutes and sermon manuscripts in nearly every congregation. When sociological research confirms again and again that the US is growing less religious each year, church leaders scramble to find new and attractive ways to stem the tides.

Denominational statistics confirm what many know from social research, namely that our members are aging. Membership numbers across the board are in decline, and have been for some time. Of course the subsequent financial decline is following. Congregations are often faced with mounting costs— property, utilities, and staff salaries—and must choose between keeping the lights on or keeping the pastor at full time or continuing important ministries and allocations. Institutional systems constructed with financial windfalls fueled by the baby boom and peak numbers of church attendance now find themselves struggling to maintain staff, program, and property. In the last decade nearly every mainline denomination has undergone significant restructuring in order to responsibly meet the new financial realities.

All the while church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, seem flustered by the emerging realities, especially the growing marginalization of the church in general. The new normal is a constant state of anxious panic.

In cultures governed by monarchies every change of leadership was a microcosm of panic. Each time a king or queen died, there was a moment of possible anarchy as the power changed hands. Lodging the succession of the crown in family lineages was one way to keep that window of transition as small as possible. A phrase quickly emerged to help the people stem the moment of anxiety. When the monarch died, it would be proclaimed around the realm “the king is dead, long live the king.” Though there were sure to be changes as a result of the transition, the lines of continuity were well in place. The people need not panic, or act from their anxiety.

To be honest, we have very little that assures us as the church of any continuity. The modern structures of church life like denominations, congregations, and even church buildings no longer provide us with the sense of security and continuity they once did. More simply, the ways of “being church” are dead or dying.

So we panic. We act from our anxiety, as if the future of the faith depends on our ability to shore things up, or change things to meet the times.

The church is dead, long live the church. That is now my new motto. As a historian I can point to any age and name the ways the church was different from the age before. And yet, when I step back and look at the longer trajectory of history, the church continued on. That was, for instance, the brilliance of the Reformation. Amidst the dramatic cultural, political, economic, and religious change, leaders like Luther were able to root the continuity of the faith through the scriptures. While everything around them was in turmoil, there was at least one line that could be drawn back in time to the first Christians. As the religious loyalties of the princes shifted, and thus the official religion of the territory changed with him, the people could still find their roots of the faith in the scripture.

I am finding myself asking not “what needs to change” but rather “what keeps us rooted in the long history of the church.” In other words— The church is dead, long live the church.

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