The demise of the Church as we know it is already taking place. The release of the Public Religion Research Institute’s study America’s Changing Religious Landscape clearly shows the change that is taking place. Major findings include the fact that white evangelical Protestants are in decline, right along with white mainline Protestants and Catholics.
Additionally, the study, based upon over 101,000 respondents, shows clearly that across the board, the Church has substantially lost the rising generation, even as the “boomers” continue to fade from the scene. When this study is paired with the Pew Survey results of last year, it is a sobering picture. Across denominational lines clergy are aging and dying. Seminaries, at least those that are still operating, are not producing the numbers needed to replace the clergy who are departing the scene. Moreover, the clergy being graduated are, by a large majority, pursuing a second career in the ministry, meaning that their working life will tend to be short compared to the preceding generation of pastors and priests.
Now, we might hate the news being delivered to us by these surveys and studies but, as someone once said, “facts are stubborn things”.
As I have shared this information in articles and private correspondence, I have been fascinated by the responses that I (and others) have received from a broad cross-section of readers and friends. These readers and friends are evangelicals and Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists and Anglicans, Lutherans and independents. I must say, I have found their responses to the surveys almost as interesting as the studies themselves. As I read through threads and emails, I began to see a pattern emerge – one that seemed familiar, although I could not name what the pattern was or exactly how it related to the varied responses. Then it came to me… these studies were heralding the demise of the Church as we know it and our reaction to the news is the same as if we heard that a beloved friend or family member had been diagnosed with what appeared to be a terminal condition. We were entering the five stages of grief as put forward by Kübler-Ross.
Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality which, of course, is not accurate and runs counter to the diagnosis. In spite of the evidence, the response is, “It’s not true”.
Anger – When the individuals recognize that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Often, they attack the messenger who has offered the diagnosis. Certain psychological responses of people undergoing this phase are: “How can this happen to us?”; or even more often, “Who is to blame?”.
Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the individuals can avoid what is inevitable. Usually, the negotiation to avoid the inevitable is made in exchange for the promise of a reformed lifestyle. Sometimes it takes the form of negotiating a compromise. “If only we do this, or that, everything will be fine”.
Depression – During the fourth stage, the individuals despair at the recognition of their institution’s mortality. In this state, individuals may become silent, refuse interaction with others and spend much of the time being sullen. “It’s going to happen, so why bother with anything?”.
Acceptance – In this last stage, individuals embrace the inevitable future. This typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individuals, and a stable condition of emotions. There is a pivot point at which individuals say, “We can’t fight it; we may as well prepare for it.”
Now, I would like to suggest that we break out of the of the five stages of grief, and perhaps we have a reason to do so. Firstly, we must understand that while most institutions have an entrenched leadership who tend to be reluctant to change, the institution itself is made up of people… people like you and me. This is true of structures ranging from a Bible Study, to the smallest country church, to the largest denomination. Moreover, you have a voice and the power of action – even if that action is limited to welcoming a visitor in your church, speaking to your pastor about your concerns or even writing a letter to your denominational or association leadership. Too often we speak blithely about being “members of the Body of Christ” without recognizing that each part of the Body can perform a function which benefits all in the Body. While the current “demise of the Church as we know it” seems inevitable, we can, with prayer and faithful action, help to chart a course for the Church that will emerge as old structures and attitudes fall away.
In practical terms, let’s turn back to the grief model of Kübler-Ross and do what the Church does best… let’s talk about redemption.
Denial – Truth is of consequence to Christians, or at least it should be. Denying the facts or saying something is “fake news” because we don’t want to hear it accomplishes nothing. The facts and figures are there. The key question is, “What are we now going to do with what we know to be true”.
Anger – Being angry with the messenger, or trying to denigrate the message will accomplish nothing. Additionally, adopting a “bunker mentality” (something believers often do) or lashing out at “who’s to blame”, currently or in the past, is self-defeating. It may be of academic interest to a few, but the vast majority of believers have little interest in the battles of yesterday, especially when the future is at stake. We all have a tendency to look backward when, in reality, we should be looking forward.
Bargaining – Trying to enter into negotiations with God seldom has a happy outcome. Think of Lot, or Jacob wrestling the angel, or even the rich young ruler (“all these things have I done”). Undeserved and boundless grace leaves little room for bargaining. The renewal of the Church will not come from us being “super Christians”. It may, however, happen if we can rediscover within ourselves as individuals, and as churches, that central and vital Grace of God that will allow us to reach outside of ourselves and our prejudices to “all sorts and conditions” of men and women for whom Christ died.
Depression – I tend not to embrace the so-called Benedict Option for one reason – the end result is withdrawal from a society that desperately needs to hear the message of Christ’s redemption. A symptom of clinical depression is isolation. We are far too isolated as it is. I may offend some here, but it has to be said… again and again… a blog site, posts on threads, or a Facebook group does not constitute a church. In such digital encounters we do not confess the Creeds together, sacraments are not offered, absolution is not given. Often, our life online may even increase our isolation. You cannot stay behind your screen. Like it or not, church is about other people and the forming of relationships. Some relationships will be great. Others, not so much… Regardless, that is where you will find Christ in the midst.
Acceptance – Lazarus had been dead for four days. Mary and Martha had accepted the inevitable, even though Mary was angry and looking for someone to blame – “Lord if you had been here…” Christ did not accept the inevitable, raising Lazarus from the dead to show “the Glory of God”. I truly believe that we do not have to accept the inevitable demise of the Church, but we cannot look to a renewal of faith in a proprietary manner. That is, we cannot want it to be renewed simply for our tribe, our confession, or our particular corner of the Christian world. If it is to happen, it must be for the Glory of God alone.
So, I’ve made a resolution to myself. I will be talking to a dear friend who is seeking to establish a new church and will go over the liturgy with him. I will do it every week until he is comfortable with the outlines of the service. Additionally, I am contacting certain other friends whom I know are trying to establish faith communities (not of my tribe, I might add). I will be asking them a single question, “What can I do to be of help or service?” It might be teaching. It might be counseling. It might be helping in a soup kitchen or painting a wall. It really does not matter. All that matters, is not standing at the sidelines grieving, when there is work and ministry to be done.