Decline and Resurrection

News broke a few months ago that the religiously unaffiliated now make up about a quarter of the US population. New Gallup research suggests that religious people with no congregational membership make up another quarter of the population. Put another way, nearly half of the American population lacks a congregational affiliation. Whether they identify with a faith tradition or not, they may as well be “Nones.”

Two interesting points to note:

There are plenty of good arguments to be had about the reasoning behind this: abusive churches, politics, the decline of group membership as a whole, and a move towards so-called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” I think there’s wisdom in each of those positions. We must also reckon with a centuries-long tradition of American individualism and its influence on the Church in this country. Religious affiliation sans community smacks of a “personal [read: private] Lord and Savior,” a faith built on “me and my Jesus.” Secularity has long been the norm in Europe, and coming out as a “None” is easier in Canada (where they are closing 9,000 churches in the next few years). But now the US, which is still the most religious major industralized nation, is on its way to a post-religious future.

To be certain, this is distressing news. Church decline is a sign of cultural shifts and numerous problems. It reflects our past sins, mistakes, and shortcomings. Even when congregations were packed on Sunday mornings in the 1950s, it has become clear that our ministry was not as faithful as we assumed. We have failed to engage in ministry beyond our own parking lots. We have betrayed the Gospel in favor of political power. We’ve actively harmed the Body of Christ and failed to speak publicly for justice and mercy. We’re now reaping what we have sewn.

But this is not the end.

The pastoral vocation is not dependent upon church attendance; we can proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and celebrate the Sacraments regardless of the parish budget or attendance numbers. Faithful presbyters are doing amazing ministry while working bi-vocationally. The Church started meeting in houses rather than dedicated buildings. Yes, it is a challenge. No, my part-time position does not look like my father’s parish ministry the year I was born. But the Church will survive even when we close buildings and parishes. The Spirit will continue to move through the Church. She will bring forth creative new ways of serving the Lord, and She will lead us back to older traditions.

Decline presents a real concern for staffing. But the Church figured this out long ago. My grandfather was a circuit rider; he was charged with the care of several parishes at once. While the Church never lost this tradition, it somehow faded from memory. But we are rediscovering this venerable approach to ministry! And as we do, it’s forcing us to confront old boundaries, to reach across denominational lines and embrace this great truth: that we, though many, are gathered into one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Lay members are being entrusted with more service, a vital reminder that ministry is the common vocation of all baptized Christians.

And even as affiliation declines, we must recognize that even the religiously unaffiliated have spiritual questions — about human nature, the soul, life after death, etc. The Church has answers to these questions. We can be a place for exploration and discussion — if we’re willing to engage with culture and to go out into the world to do this work. What does this mean? It means we have to actually value our tradition, to engage seriously with our theology and embrace biblical literacy. Clergy, you’re going to have to take these matters up in the pulpit, in small groups, and in your own continue education. It’s not enough to preach Brené Brown and imitate TED Talks. We are called to offer them Christ.

Meanwhile, Millennials are rediscovering the need to belong — and finding new ways to express that belonging. We are a lonely generation, isolated even as social media makes us more connected than ever before. The gig economy means many of us lack constant interaction with coworkers. Relationships have moved in to digital spaces. But the Church offers something different: an incarnational relationship. Our faith is embodied. We can use social media to do ministry, but we have so much more to offer than Facebook or Snapchat! We gather and greet each other with signs of Christ’s peace. We touch the baptismal waters, and we feed on Christ’s Body and smell the sweet wine that is our Lord’s Precious Blood. Our Holy Communion spills over and sanctifies normal meals and coffee hours, and every rain drop allows us to remember our Baptism, physical reminders that we are connected. This is Good News, especially for a generation so physically isolated.

So yes, religious affiliation is on the decline. Yes, the Church is going to have some hard choices to make. Yes, some congregations may even close. At times, it may feel like the Church is dying. But Christ has given us all that we need, and the Holy Spirit is guiding us ever onward. And we have this promise: the grave is empty, and not even death is the end.

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