The Church Is Dying, And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us
Average Sunday attendance: down.
Membership numbers: down.
Yearly pledge income: down.
The statistics don’t lie.
For the past forty years, accelerating like a train down a mountain for the last fifteen years, the Episcopal Church and indeed the entire Christian mainstream has been losing strength, losing growth, losing life.
If even the megachurches are hemorrhaging members, what hope do we have?
The Episcopal Church is dying.
It’s no secret. Everyone knows it is happening.
The Episcopal Church used to be a real seat of power in America.
More U.S. presidents have been Episcopalians than any other denomination, remarkable when you consider our relative size compared to the Methodists or the Lutherans or the Roman Catholics.
The Episcopal Church used to be the seat of the rich and the powerful, and with that wealth and power came major influence on the state and on society.
We need look no further than the great Indiana Episcopalian himself, Eli Lilly, to see the truth of that phenomenon.
But no more.
Our churches are shrinking in finances, shrinking in membership, shrinking in power and influence, even shrinking from view.
Sometimes it feels like we need look no further than our own congregations to prove that.
If you asked an average American, “What’s an Episcopalian?” he would have no idea if it was a geological age or a specific kind of hedge fund.
He would have no idea it’s a Christian denomination, much less be able to name our Anglican heritage or articulate any of our principles.
This decline leading toward death has led to a deep underlying anxiety in our churches.
Even as we try to get excited about evangelism and growth, there is a quiet, insistent voice in the back of our minds saying, “I think I might be on the losing team.”
Being a part of a church is a commitment that is unglamorous already.
Tithing, serving, attending and helping keep the wheels of the church turning can often be humble tasks that don’t always leave us brimming with spiritual fulfillment.
And nobody wants to run another play when their team is losing 50-0.
Nobody wants to haul water to nourish flowers that are planted in a desert.
Nobody wants to keep working for a lost cause.
The voices in the back of your head are getting louder. They say things like, “That other church in town really seems to be alive and growing. I know they preach things that make me really uncomfortable, but I’ll just go by there one Sunday to see that big beautiful new building they’ve built. No one at St. Francis will even notice I’m gone.”
Or, “You know, I think I really am more spiritual than religious. Besides, person X has been driving me insane for years and I can’t get into a worshipful state of mind when I have to stare at her stupid face in the other pew. I’m much more in touch with God when I go walking in the woods. I’ll do that this Sunday.”
Don’t feel bad, it’s completely normal.
Even I think those things sometimes, and I get paid to be here!
But I think we have gone badly wrong in our mourning for our dying church, our anxious vigil at its bedside.
I think we need to reexamine what Jesus is asking of us, what he has always asked of us.
What does it mean to be successful as a church?
We assume that it means growth, but we define growth very narrowly.
Our definition of growth is growth in numbers, but a hefty dose of our motivation is growth in money—get the bodies in the door and you’ll get the pledges in the plate.
What kind of motivation is that?
We are driven not just by our own financial insecurity but by some obscure notion that we are more pleasing to God by having more people in the building.
And believe me, I fall into that trap faster than anyone.
The truth is that we feel weak when we’re small.
We feel like failures.
We look back to the “good old days” when this church had so many members that two and three services were full every week, when we had a Vacation Bible School bursting at the seams with kids every summer. Those were good seasons of ministry and we should celebrate them.
But the truth is that feeling weak and small also makes us feel powerless, and we can’t bear that.
I have been wrestling theologically with the idea of power for years now. And I am led again and again to think it is one of the most insidious and seductive forces in human life.
It panders to our egos and leads us to rationalize all our most sinful impulses into excusable quirks or even virtues.
Consider the church. When has it been the most destructive?
When it has been the biggest and the most powerful.
Think of the colonial era. The Anglican Church, backed by the might of the British Empire, cut a swathe of physical and spiritual death and destruction across Africa and Asia in the name of the gospel.
That is the result of becoming a “successful” church by the standards we are all too often prone to using.
Think of the Crusades. Think of the Inquisition.
Think of American Indian children kidnapped, sent to missionary-run schools, and forced to forget their languages and their families.
That was the church at its most “successful” in terms of hegemony and growth in numbers, and the result was oppression, torture, and murder.
The decline of the church may in fact be the best thing that ever happens to us.
Our paradigm of success being the route to God’s favor has resulted in a bloated, rich, powerful Christianity that has become dogmatic and spiritually stunted.
I think Jesus is calling us to something quite different.
Look at our gospel story today.
Jesus doesn’t liken the kingdom of heaven to an elephant or a whale or a mountain.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” he says, “the smallest of all the seeds.”
It is like a minuscule pinch of yeast mixed in with three measures of flour, he says.
It is like a tiny pearl in a huge marketplace, he says.
It is like a small, dusty old box buried in a giant field.
Does that sound like a Jesus who is disappointed that we are not huge and growing?
Does that sound like a Jesus who will only love us if we are bursting at the seams with money and crowds of people?
In fact, it seems to be the opposite.
When has the church been the smallest and the least powerful?
We have to go all the way back to the very early church, the disciples and the first couple of generations who were being oppressed by the Romans.
It was serious weakness, smallness, and oppression.
And the church was on fire in those days.
That mustard seed church started by the disciples, a bunch of failures and screw-ups for sure, was so alive with love and passion for God that they were literally willing to die for it.
That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of—small, weak, poor, full of people who are not afraid to fail because they’ve failed so many times before and seen how hard God loves them.
They love God with all their strength because they’ve seen God love them with all God’s strength.
And how did they see that happen?
Either they personally saw or they saw through the story their friends told them.
They saw Jesus die on the Cross.
That’s the other truth that we’ve been hiding from for a long time: that death is the road to resurrection, that we cannot go around the Cross, but must enter into it and be transformed by it.
We have been sitting by the hospital bed of our dying church, mourning it and blaming ourselves for its failure, when in fact the smallest, poorest, dying churches are unknowingly walking the path of Jesus Christ.
But there are two distinct options here.
There is death that ends in death, as in, end of story, here lies the Episcopal Church, crumbled to dust and irrelevance.
And then there is death that leads to resurrection.
I know which I’d rather be a part of.
The death that leads to resurrection is a death freely entered into, an embrace of the Cross that is undergirded by the knowledge that God will call us into and through this death into new life.
The point of openly acknowledging the decline and death of the church is not to lock the doors after the service today never to open them again.
The point is not to give ourselves an excuse for not doing the hard work of Christian community.
The point of embracing the death of the church is the same as it is for us as individuals—Jesus’ death on the Cross was above all the source of our liberation.
The death of the church is our great liberation from all the power and wealth that have so often led us astray.
We are being given the chance to quit being empire—a role which we honestly don’t have the resources for anymore anyway, a role which is anymore nothing but a hollow, vain sham of riches and power—and return to the catacombs.
That’s a painful transition.
But the Christians in the catacombs learned to live with death as their constant companion, in the literal graves that surrounded their worship spaces and in the constant threat that followed them every day of death at the hands of the empire.
It only made their thirst for life with God, on the earth and in the beyond, that much more potent.
We are the Body of Christ. That is what the Church is.
And what happened to the Body of Christ?
Did Jesus gather money and power and try to please God by being successful in worldly terms?
No. The Body of Christ ended up nailed to a cross.
But then the Body of Christ was raised on the third day.
This is the choice that is laid before us: death leading to death, or death leading to resurrection.
How do we make that choice?
How do we become the mustard seed church?
By returning over and over to the words of Jesus and rooting ourselves in his simultaneous narrow path and broad embrace.
We stop and pay attention to what we’re doing as individuals and a community in the smallest of everyday moments and really ask ourselves, are we striving to do what Jesus asks of us?
Are we trying to love our enemies, give everything we have to the poor, love God with our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbors as ourselves?
We quit the path of success and instead walk the path of discipleship.
And I think we will find that if we do, the road to the Cross, the tomb, and the Resurrection may not be as linear for us as the Church as it was for Jesus the first time around.
I have a feeling that we will be experiencing death and resurrection simultaneously.
Every time we embrace a death—the death of our pride, the death of our old goals, the death of our financial security, the death of our preconceived ideas of what a church should be and do, the death of our desire for success—we will likely find that resurrection is breaking forth everywhere around us.
Investing in the path of death and resurrection, the terribly difficult and joyfully liberating path of discipleship as the Body of Christ, will awaken in us a vitality that is far more compelling to seekers than all our old, self-serving, desperate, half-believed-in evangelism strategies.
That doesn’t mean we quit reaching out. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is an intrinsic part of faithful discipleship.
But the freedom of getting honest about being members of this dying Body of Christ will liberate us.
It will liberate us from offering the good news tainted by that desperation for growth in money and numbers, that awful pressure to “succeed” as a church that has no spiritual integrity and serves our fearful ego far more than the needs of any seeker.
If we can embrace being the dying Body of Christ, we the Church can know the joy of being the resurrected living Body of Christ.
All we have to do is take Jesus’ words to heart: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
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