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Monday, June 18, 2012

10 reasons the church is failing, part 1 (of 2)

Over the last year, I’ve done much reading, processing, talking and listening about the decline of Christianity in North America accompanied with research and brainstorming sessions about hopeful signs to look for in a new and emerging form of Christianity and what it means to be church together. To that end, I’ve compiled a couple of “Top Ten” lists. The first lists reasons for the decline of the Christian Church. The second list gives a number of signs to look for in the church of the future. Neither list is exhaustive. In fact, I keep thinking of more I could add while simultaneously wondering what obvious candidates I’ve overlooked in the process. Because this is a fairly ambitious topic to cover in a blog, I’m breaking this up into two, two-part series of four posts. So, without further ado….

10 reasons the church is failing; part 1:

“We have come to a moment in the life of the church when only the most candid and intellectually honest assessment of the life and message of Jesus can prevent the continued implosion of the church.”

- Robin Meyers (Saving Jesus from the Church)

#1 - Shifting age in time (modernism to postmodernism).
“What has been passing for Christianity during these nineteen centuries is merely a beginning, full of weaknesses and mistakes, not a full-grown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.”
- Albert Schweitzer

As a human civilization, we go through different philosophical ages. The 18th century on through the tail end of the 19th century was called the age of enlightenment. Freedom, democracy and most particularly, reason, were the hallmarks of this age. It’s really difficult to pinpoint an accurate time because these period transitions take many decades, but somewhere around the 1870’s, we began to move out of the Age of Enlightenment and into the Age of Modernism. In many ways, modernism was an extension of the Enlightenment Age while also a reaction to and against it. Order and stability were central ideals and these were maintained through grand narratives or faith in universal truths. Knowledge was good, the more knowledge the better. The idea of a liberal arts education was born and the mainline denominational system came into being. Denominations formed their own institutions and created their own denominational seminaries (wikipedia).

Since time and hindsight only make it easier to figure out when one period ends and another begins, it’s even more of a challenge to try and pinpoint modernism’s demise and post-modernity’s birth. I’m guessing we’re still in the uncertain time between these two periods. But many people in the know see the 1960’s - 1980’s as the tipping point in time. Postmodernism is, in part, a reaction to modernism but many would simply frame it as an evolution/progression in thought and understanding. Postmodernism is uncomfortable with the idea of universal truth and it rejects grand narratives, so clearly order isn’t its primary concern. The most helpful web posting I found was by English professor Dr. Mary Klages. She writes, “Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors ‘mini-narratives,’ stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern ‘mini-narratives’ are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability.” She goes on to suggest the phrase, “Think globally, act locally“, is the perfect postmodern motto. Whereas the acquisition of knowledge is good for the modernist, the postmodernist is most concerned about how that knowledge is used. According to author Tony Jones, postmodernism also entails “an abandonment of sharp differences between fields of knowledge and a flattening of former hierarchies (The New Christians).”

This shift in philosophy permeates every aspect of society, the church included. Called into question is church hierarchy, orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy, the role of community, and the very nature of truth.
#2 - Legacy of Christendom
“The Nicene Creed was crafted to be a summary statement of what it meant to be a Christian. So we have the early church, called the church of “The Way”, described in Acts as a community committed to following the example of Jesus. Now fast forward a couple of hundred years and what is included in this creed about the life of Jesus? Nothing. The church has gone from following Jesus to worshipping Christ. The emphasis is no longer on ethics or living your faith, rather the emphasis is on right belief, how you understand the nature of Christ and what you believe about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has morphed into an ethereal Christ who we can revere and glorify, but who is so far removed from us, we cannot hope to follow him. He was God after all. A trajectory was set in those first few hundred years that continues to play out today. From the time of Constantine on forward, the Christian Church set itself on a path which would consistently devalue the relevance of Jesus’ life.”
- excerpted from a personal sermon; May 13, 2012
I’ve written about the impact of Constantine on Christianity in several blog posts. In brief, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, convened a gathering of many Christian leaders in the year 325 in the town of Nicea, located in Turkey in order to hammer out a statement of right belief. At this point in history, Christianity went from being a motley crew of persecuted Jesus followers to becoming the official state religion. It got itself married to power and authority and never looked back. The Nicene Creed became the official standard of belief. Any Christian stream (and there were many) who found themselves outside the strict confines of the beliefs set forth in this creed were declared heretical and in many cases were persecuted by the state Church. Christianity went from following Jesus to worshipping Christ.

#3 - Fear
“I sense much fear of fear itself in the contemporary landscape. Having lost the ancient sense of fear as a healthy dose of reverence and wonder, we are left with only the negative connotations of the word. The ‘fear of the Lord’ spoken of in the Bible as the ‘beginning of wisdom’ becomes incomprehensible; instead of opening us up, allowing us to explore our capacity for devotion in the presence of something larger and wiser than ourselves, fear is seen as something that shrinks us, harms us, and renders us incapable of acting on our own behalf. I love the way in which all the angels of scripture, and Jesus himself on occasion, say to people whom they encounter, ‘Fear not.’…It is an exorcism; as we speak the words, fear itself becomes a ‘not,’ a nothing. And in that act of speech, all the complexity of the word ‘fear’ is revealed: yes, it can stymie us, but it can also set us free.”
- Kathleen Norris (Amazing Grace)

Institutions always fear change. And for good reason. Institutions thrive on status quo and stability is the air they breathe. Ideally, the church will not become an institution. In order for the church to be a vibrant, living community, the Spirit must be given space to move in unpredictable and often upsetting ways. However, all too often through the history of Christendom the church has chosen the security of the institution over the wild movement of the Spirit. When this happens, the church, as institution, moves to box God in and reacts in fear to anyone who tries to open that box up again. One of the best examples I can think of is how the church has responded to those who ask tough questions, belittling the faith of those who express doubts. The institutional church fears (and rightfully so) the way in which questions tend to lead seekers into dangerous and dark paths that threaten or even consume foundations of right belief. But all too often the greatest truths about ourselves and God are found not in the safe confines of the institution, but in the treacherous wilds well away from the church’s yard light.

#4 - Denial
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being 'disturbers of the peace' and 'outside agitators.' But they went on with the conviction that they were 'a colony of heaven,' and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be 'astronomically intimidated.' They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an
uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring...and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

Maybe again, I have been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and our world? Maybe I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.
- Martin Luther King Jr. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)
In the little, rural Mennonite parish of Bergthal, where I pastor, a quiet stream of people began leaving the church in the 1950’s and 1960’s. What began as a trickle, quickly morphed into a flood. By the 1970’s and 1980’s the church was hemorrhaging members. What happened at Bergthal was far more dramatic than what was happening in main-line denominations in general. However, according to an article from wikipedia, “Mainline denominations peaked in membership in the 1950s and have declined steadily in the last half century. From 1960 to 1988, mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million, then fell to 21 million in 2005. Today, they are a minority among American Protestants, claiming approximately 15 percent of American adults among their adherents.”

This decline began around 60 years ago and prophetic voices across the decades have worked to sound the alarm bell. Yet only now are we finally deciding to pull our congregational heads out of the sand in order to take a long, hard look at what has become a rather sorry state of affairs. As humans, we are very skilled at seeing what we want to see and likewise, not seeing what we don’t want to see. For too long, the church has tried to make superficial repairs without engaging the needed work of reconstruction
Denial certainly plays a role in the state of the church today.

# 5 - Stereotyped understanding of Christianity
“On July 28, 2010, well known author Anne Rice posted this message to her facebook page.
I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse
to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti- science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen. “
Within twenty-four hours, more than four thousand people gave Rice’s Facebook declaration a thumbs-up, and tens of thousands more shared or retweeted it.”
- Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion)

According to David Kinnaman, author of the book, unChristian and President of the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, “when asked by the Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was ‘anti-homosexual.’ For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith.”

Robin Meyers, pastor and author, quotes this same study writing, “In a recent survey, more than three-quarters of young churchgoers identified Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, out of touch, insensitive, boring, and exclusive--the antithesis of love.” (The Underground Church)
 Like it or not, the word “Christian” has become a loaded and stereotyped image. And there are far too many publicized voices which lend credibility to the stereotype. Over and over in both my reading and personal experiences, I encounter people who are fed up with Christianity and embarrassed to call themselves Christian, content instead to name themselves simply (and perhaps more appropriately) a Jesus follower.

I’ll pick up on #6 next week…..

(An encouraging qualifier: If you’ve read this through and are feeling more than a little discouraged, the second two-part series will actually offer a lot of hope for the church’s future!)

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