Not to Be Ignored
In recent months, several books have been published, not to mention dozens of articles, about the decline of organized religion and, more poignantly for Presbyterians, the Church in its institutional forms. An article that particularly caught my attention, mainly because several colleagues simultaneously suggested I read it, was entitled, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church” published in the July 29th issue of The Atlantic.
The author, Jake Meador, reflected quite soberingly, “Forty million Americans have stopped attending church in the past 25 years. That’s something like 12 percent of the population, and it represents the largest concentrated change in church attendance in American history. As a Christian, I feel this shift acutely. My wife and I wonder whether the institutions and communities that have helped preserve us in our own faith will still exist for our four children, let alone whatever grandkids we might one day have.”
And, of course, there have been many surveys and polls that have backed up Mr. Meador’s observations. In 1999, Gallop reported that the number of Americans that belonged to a “house of worship” was 70%. Now, fewer than 25 years later, the number is only 47%. In 2022, Pew Research reported that the decline of Christianity is showing no signs of slowing down and that, by one projection, roughly 150 million Americans will walk away from the church by 2070.
Did We Do This to Ourselves?
These, no doubt, are alarming trends that need to be taken seriously. Indeed, they cause “cradle Presbyterians” like me to wonder what we have done wrong or, even worse, how my love for the church as I know it—with its ongoing structures, traditions, and practices—is causing Americans to flee as never before? These, in themselves, are not unhelpful questions to ask, but according to Meador, and too many social scientists to count, there are far stronger forces at work.
For example, authors of The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis and Michael Graham suggest that the defining problem is not only what the American church has done or not done, but what American life has become. They argue quite convincingly, as summarized by Meador:
“Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up (bold italics are added by me).”
Hope in Our Lord Jesus Christ
I do not have space here to trace the process by which ordinary individuals leave the church, nor how, in aggregate, their mass exodus affects society. It is widely known “[how] participation in a religious community generally correlates with better health outcomes and longer life, higher financial generosity, and more stable families—all of which are desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of loneliness, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependency” as Meador so aptly reports.
What there is space for is a reminder of the hope we share in Jesus Christ. After Simon Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus blessed him with these words: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
I find these words to be profoundly comforting in an era when the world around us is changing so radically and quickly. No amount of societal change, not even the worst kinds of evil, Jesus promises, shall prevail against God’s Church.
More Comfort, and Much-Needed Direction
In such an era as this, I also find tremendous comfort – from all places, the Book of Order. In “The Calling of the Church” which may be found in “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” (F-1.10301), there are a few statements that become like the North Star for me when it comes to ruminating about the future of the Church. Whenever I become anxious, these statements remind me what the Church is and the mission to which we are called:
The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.
Before denominations, before individualism, before capitalism and workism, Jesus called disciples to “be a community” of “faith,” “hope,” “love,” and “witness.” We must never forget this precious calling whenever we are overcome by worrisome trends, even those which appear cataclysmic at any given moment.
I realize that it is easier said than done, but we should encourage each other toward that end because we were – always and forever shall be – much more than an institution or a denomination or a worship style or a political party. We are a community birthed by Jesus Christ himself and called to be bearers of his love and justice in the world.
Therefore, rather than allowing recent changes in society, or even the church’s sin of surrendering to society’s values (bigness, money, power, sexism, racism, etc…) to paralyze us with discouragement, I suggest we receive them as an invitation to follow God’s Spirit into the future.
Could it be that so many people are leaving the American church not because they lack a desire to grow spiritually but because the former container of their spiritual growth was feeling more restricting than nurturing? Our Lutheran and Reformed spiritual ancestors of the 16th Century must have felt that way about the Roman Catholic Church as God’s Spirit led them to read the scriptures differently and help them shape a new way of being God’s church in the world.
Let’s Answer, “Yes!”
Which brings me to a question. Is not our theology as Presbyterians perfectly suited to walk with these millions of past church goers as they seek a new container for what God’s Spirit is doing in them? I am compelled to answer with a resounding “Yes!” because I have yet to meet a person with whom I have shared my faith that does not appreciate the way we Presbyterians think about God’s plan to restore all creation in love, or see in it a potential path for their own spiritual nourishment.
Rather than see this current era in terms of decline, therefore, I suggest that, at least for a moment, we consider it as an era of great potential, and even one of spiritual awakening. When I do, I get excited about the future and feel honored that God has chosen me to be a Presbyterian-flavored Christian. Indeed, I believe we are on the threshold of a new era into which we Presbyterians are perfectly positioned, at least theologically, to speak with joy and confidence.
Re-Making Ourselves “In Christ”
If you have been following along with presbytery developments recently, you may have realized that a thirty-month journey came to an end on June 1st—and a new one began. At June’s Gathering of Presbytery, the Council announced that it had received recommendations from the Strategic Task Group (STG) about our presbytery’s future, including seven priorities for mission, a bunch of benchmarks, and a revised strategy for a structural reorganization of the presbytery. (Note: The STG report will be posted in the upcoming Presbytery Packet for the September 23rd Gathering. You can register for that Gathering here.)
Please be praying for Council as they reflect on these recommendations and collaborate with the wider body to develop a revised mission plan which we can all embrace and rejoice. Please also pray for me as I will be making a presentation at September’s Presbytery Gathering that integrates the Council’s initial response to the STG’s recommendations and Council’s ongoing, prioritized work. And join me and Rev. Jason Ko as we co-facilitate a Learning Conversation on that day about Hope for Renewal in Your Church.
Hope for the Future
It hardly needs saying that “we live in interesting times.” We are witnesses to unprecedented changes in our society that are affecting the way people gather and the way they seek spiritual sustenance.
As someone who loves the Church, I know how unnerving this can be. But I take courage that I am accompanied by fellow disciples who are steadfast in their faith, not in forms of Church that worked in centuries past or are “trending” in today’s culture, but in Jesus Christ himself, the author and finisher of our faith.
As we pray and think and shape our future together, let us always be mindful of our true witness, not the every-changing human-made systems and trends in society, but as “a community” that points “beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.”
To God be the glory…in all times!