As our society slowly shifts toward openly discussing end-of-life issues for human beings, maybe we in the church ought to be more open to discussing “end-of-life” issues for our institutions. A few months ago, Pew Research released its latest poll on religion in the United States and dramatic headlines fretting, or celebrating, the end of Christianity immediately popped up on cyber and print media outlets across the country. As a mainline Protestant pastor, my plea to all my bothers and sisters frightened by the latest polling results would be, “Fine, bemoan the (possible) loss. But, please, do not make any heroic attempts to resuscitate the Church.”
Before any of my more eager evangelical bothers or sisters respond by denouncing me as “exactly what is wrong with the mainline Church,” (at least for the position I take above), let me add, I believe that the poll results released in May actually have almost nothing to say about the health of Christianity in the United States. So, the self- identified “Christian percentage of the population” fell by 8% (from 78.4% to 70.6%)? 70% still claim to be Christian! Seventy percent! But even about that number, let’s be real – do any of us honestly believe that 70% of the human beings in the United States of America believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Anointed One of God and have changed something major in their lives to try to follow the path he commanded us to follow? Or, that 78.4% of the population used to? If that were true, I don’t believe we would be creating tax breaks for large corporations while cutting funding for social services.
I live and work as a pastor in a part of the country that long ago stopped pretending that going to church is an essential part of the lives of 70% of the population; for that matter, we’ve stopped pretending that it’s an essential part of the lives of even a majority of people. There is absolutely no social incentive for claiming to be a Christian in our culture here in Seattle. None! So people don’t do it. And though some Sundays, for pride and ego mostly, I feel like maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if just a few dozen more could pretend for a little while and do it by attending our church services; still, as a whole, I believe that the Christian community in Seattle and perhaps even the wider culture are healthier for it. We have much smaller numbers than in many parts of the country, but I have found that the disciples here bring a tenacious commitment to their faith that results in profound service to their neighbors and neighborhoods.
I believe the American Church has squandered, and continues to squander, countless resources trying to prop up the edifice of institutional religion at the expense of caring, to the fullness of our abilities, for our neighbors and one another. We have fallen for the falsehood that greater numbers equate to greater health, no matter what. We have sometimes subtly, sometimes brazenly, sacrificed authentic community for attendance numbers, in the name of “church growth.” Therefore, anytime the numbers decrease we believe the church is dying.
Regardless of the veracity of the headlines concerning the Pew Poll numbers, the survey results can serve as a prompt to face the question, “So what if the church dies?” Does that mean that God has died? Does that mean that the Holy Spirit no longer breathes new life into individuals and communities? Does that mean the Jesus has left the building? Since when has a building, or for that matter a denomination, been able to contain God? The history of the institutional church has been a history of hindering God at least as much as helping, if not more. In the time that I have been in the Seattle Presbytery we have closed and shuttered maybe a dozen church buildings and bade farewell to the official congregations they held. At the same time, new congregations of people following Christ have gathered all across the city and wider region. Some have even done so under the identifying name of “Presbyterian”, but many others have taken on other identifying names. The Holy Spirit still broods over the dark chaos calling out new forms of life.
In our congregation, we have been looking at the Apostles Creed this summer, Sunday by Sunday. This past Sunday, July 26, we came to the phrase, “I believe in…the Holy catholic Church.” For a little congregation like ours, recognizing this reality, that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves, frees us up to rejoice, come what may. If we limit our understanding of the health of the Church to the numbers associated with our distinct congregation, every sign of life becomes vital, and every sign of death becomes frightful. When we remember our place in the Body of Christ, when we remember that we have brothers and sisters in Christ gathering for worship at Queen Anne United Methodist two blocks away, and St. Anne’s Catholic a couple blocks farther on, and St. Paul’s Episcopal down by the Seattle Center, and… and… across the world! The fortunes of our congregation, our building, our denomination don’t seem quite so vital. We are one part of the Body of Christ. Just as some cells of a growing human body die off and make way for new, living cells, so too do congregations and even denominations within the Body of Christ. Our “heroic” attempts to resuscitate what is truly dying in the Church merely distract us from attending to what is truly living and growing. Let us have the courage to let go what is passing and welcome what is being born.