Part One of this blog really struck a nerve. I tried to respond to comments until they began numbering in the hundreds. Virtually everyone has an opinion about why the Church is declining.
Fundamentalist Christians think it's a sign the Church is being purged just before the Rapture and beginning of the end.
Some atheists, and those really angry with the Church, just hope it will eventually disappear; sooner would be better.
Both are wrong.
The Church is not going away, my friend, either to meet Jesus in the clouds or to fulfill atheists' hopes. It is here to stay. It is clearly changing, however. And, it is declining, too. It is my own feeling we haven't seen the worst of it yet.
Just as you are justifiably wary of Congress accurately monitoring or interpreting their own actions, be wary of what Church leaders and denominational experts say about what's happening in their house.
Which means you should question my observations about the Church, too.
I make several observations. None are necessarily right. But they do represent my thinking about why the Church is declining and what we, as the Church, might do to reverse it.
Here are a few of my thoughts.
1. Change is Occurring and We Should Embrace It. What will emerge on the other side of the current seismic shift is just about anybody's guess. If Harvey Cox and Phyllis Tickle are right, the present transformation will be every bit as significant as the East-West Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation combined.
Instead of resenting what's happening, or running for the hills to await the trumpet blast, ask honest questions of your church's theology, identity, and ministry. If you don't, there's a good chance you will die. You might anyway, if you think embracing change means preserving a past that is no more or fighting to hold on to a pre-scientific world theology or saying that those who cannot just don't have faith.
People are smarter today than even a few decades ago. They're more connected via the web, too, meaning, they're not alone in their questions about the Church and its outworn theology. Isn't it odd to you that the very educational institutions Christians once believed was their mission to create and fund are now regarded by many fundamentalist Christians as enemies? People have been educated in the very institutions our mission dollars have built. Thanks to the Church, people have learned to think for themselves. So, threatening people with eternal damnation if they question the Church's theology or doctrine just won't work anymore. No church will survive, or should survive, that attempts to control people's faith and faith journey by using its presumed authority as a trump card. Those days are over. Either make room for everyone or the empty seat at the table of the real world will be yours.
2. Stop Labeling "Nones" and the "Religiously Unaffiliated" as Unfaithful, or Sub-par Christians or, worse, Not Christians at All. Instead of looking at those who've left the church and asking "What's wrong with them?" shouldn't we be looking at ourselves and asking, "What's wrong with us?"
Suggesting that those who've left the Church have left their faith is not only untrue, it misses the point altogether. The majority of those who've left the church have not left their faith at all. Not even remotely. They've left the Church, instead, and they've done so precisely because they want to preserve their faith. As John King poignantly put it in a recent post, many Christians have decided, instead of going to church, "they should be the Church wherever they go."
If we'd like for some of these to return to the Church, and I for one would, I think we must stop judging people and try living with a little humility and compassion ourselves.
3. Appreciate the Growing Diversity Within the Church. Its destiny is only to become more diverse and, as it does, the Church will become more and more varied in its theology, doctrine, and ministry. Three-fourths of all Catholics know this, which is why they welcome with hopefulness what they see and hear from Pope Francis. I know you've noticed how the rigid guardians of presumed "truth" leap up at everything he says in an effort to put the "right" spin on what he really means. You can give up that charade, my friend. It only highlights the deep theological divisions that exist among the Church's hierarchy itself, a division similar to what is happening in all the Church. Good luck with trying to vet or edit his words as well as his gracious Christ-like spirit.
My own feeling is, in the end, the Church will either change and allow for greater diversity of belief or it will continue to see it coffers shrink, its influence wane, and its annual church closures increase.
4. Make Friends, Instead of Enemies, with the People Who Disagree with You. Fundamentalism survives but only by making enemies of virtually everyone. For nearly two decades, I was a Southern Baptist minister. When the fundamentalists seized control of the SBC in the '80s and '90s, they split the denomination. Many leaders and congregations left and formed a new denomination. Or, if they remained with the SBC, they did so marginally at best. Today, the denomination has all but squandered its once exemplary status as a church growth leader among Protestant and Evangelical churches. And, with no enemies left to fight, the fundamentalists within what remains of the SBC have done what fundamentalists do everywhere. They've turned on each other. Today, there is very little compassion between leaders, even less cooperation between the churches, and almost no tolerance and diversity among the ranks of the grassroots, all of which were once the exemplary hallmarks of the SBC.
Join me in the final post (Part Three) where I'll share a few more of my thoughts about why nobody wants to go to church anymore and what the Church should do about it. Meanwhile, I'll be reading and responding to many of your thoughts and comments. Thank you for participating in this conversation.