“The Church is dying! The Church is dying!”
Or so Chicken Little cries.
And Chicken Little gives plenty of evidence to “prove” that point. Decreased attendance, a large number of church closings, and a lack of interest in religion, combined with the increase of the “Nones.” These are all signs that the church is dying.
But is it really? And even if it is, is that such a bad thing?
Yes…I just said that. And I’ll explain why shortly. But first, let’s take a look at a few things.
I heard, a few years ago, that the post WWII church was built on an unsustainable model. Record numbers of people were going to church in the aftermath of the horrors of that war, and so record numbers of churches were built for them. And rather than sit down and do the math for the demographics for years to come, “we” foolishly assumed (or “had faith in the fact”) that church growth would continue at the same rate forever.
It didn’t. It leveled out, and then went back to its previous levels. And when it did, rather than seeing it as a natural demographic occurrence…or a correction back to church attendance patterns of the past, we cried out that the church was dying.
Another thing to consider is the massive conformity of the 50s and 60s. Many people went to church not necessarily because they seriously believed, but because it was something you were supposed to do. Social pressure said that everyone went to church, and so you did. With that social pressure gone, people who didn’t want to go to church in the first place were now free to stay home on Sunday mornings.
But there’s another very important reason that the church seems to be dying…and it’s actually a good reason. Maybe the church seems to be dying because we won.
Yes…we won. The ideals that had previously only been those of the church, had been spread out into the greater culture, and we won. The result was that you no longer needed to be a Christian or a churchgoer to heal the sick, feed the poor, and visit those who were in prison. You could be a mensch, you can give money to or do work with Doctors without Borders, your local food bank, or Amnesty International without having to be a Christian.
And if you could be a mensch without having to be a Christian, then why go to church in the first place? Why belong to an organization that you think is silly at best, and dangerous at worst?
There are those who would argue that without religion…and Christianity in particular…people can’t have a moral compass. They simplistically assume that those who have no religion and no belief in any sort of god, have no morals. Not only could nothing be farther from the truth, but we all know that some of the most heinous acts have been committed by people who claimed to be very religious.
So is the church dying? Maybe, maybe not. The institution is definitely changing, but it’s been changing ever since the first scared Christians first met in their homes after the first Good Friday. The forms will change, but the church will remain.
And we’ll continue to win…by making ourselves unnecessary.
So rather than bemoaning the fact that there are fewer people in our churches, perhaps we should celebrate that there are more people out there doing the good work that we’ve been called to do.
And by the way…I’m not the only one to think this. As I was writing this, I was surprised to hear much the same thing said in Part 2 of the CBC series The Myth of the Secular, which you can download as a podcast.
I’ll be back in a few weeks to talk more about the church as an institution.