The Dead and the Dying

I’ve been putting a lot of research lately into the life cycle of local churches. In America, the average church is seventy-eight years old, and more churches close than open every year. But why? As our population continues to grow, we should be adding churches, yes, but we shouldn’t need to shutter existing ones. Add people, add congregations — not add people, subtract congregations and then add fewer than you closed. So why is this the trend?

Two reasons seem to dominate the discussion. First, fewer Americans attend services regularly, as the number of people claiming a Christian affiliation is at an all-time low, percentage-wise. They call this “the rise of the nones” — those individuals who, when presented with a list of possible religions, check the box marked “none.” These are people who do not claim to be Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, or anything else. It could be they’ve always been atheistic, agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or something else entirely. It could even be they grew up in a religious household and just lost their faith at some point in life. Regardless, the nones are one of the (if not the) fastest growing “religious” groups in America. As more and more people choose to opt out of a religious affiliation, fewer and fewer walk through the doors of the local church. Without people to donate to keep those doors open, they close forever.

The second major reason we close more churches than we open is that people choose to let their churches die. I’m not suggesting a group of malcontent Machiavellis get together in the church basement and strategically plot the demise of the congregation. I’m saying the members and leaders of the congregation are unwilling to either see the need for change or to enact the changes which are necessary for the survival of the church. These churches will only allow things to be done according to the preferences of existing members, saying in effect they’d rather die than allow x to happen — and so they do. After years of denials and refusals to adapt to the communities around them, they close their doors forever. And the saddest part? They have only themselves to blame.

Churches like that rarely come out and admit that’s what’s happening, though. Most instead will loudly aver time and time again just how open they are to change — yet they never allow change to happen. They will vow to do whatever it takes, anything at all, to keep the doors open — then politely refuse to lift a finger because, well, change means change, and change requires action.

With those attitudes — with the “us first” mentality — these churches quickly slide downhill. Members become older, and as they (inevitably) die, no younger people rise to replace them. Youth groups dwindle and perish as teens age out of the group or as youth volunteers simply quit. (Most of those newly-minted young adults, I’d wager, will leave the church, either their home congregation or the capital-C Church Universal.) Without new members coming in or the natural advancement of younger members, the congregation literally dies. Without enough donors to provide support, the church first loses staff and then closes the doors completely and permanently. Life support measures fail, and the patient dies.

All because members want it their way. They don’t want to give up what they have in order to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of the Kingdom. Instead, they carefully remodel their church buildings into stained-glass tombs, mausoleums of The Good Ol’ Days.

Aside from the selfishness and arrogance it takes to do that, it’s just plain sad.

Church consultants say only two things can happen to a church on life support, one just doing what it’s always done and refusing to change. On the one hand, it can simply die over time, with the remaining members joining other congregations. Alternatively, it can preemptively sell (or give) its properties and other assets to a new church or ministry. The members will still go their separate ways, but the edifice will live on to provide a home for a new, vibrant body of believers. Sadly, those two options are generally agreed upon as the only ways forward for those on life support. Once a church hits a life expectancy of 5-10 years remaining, the experts say it’s nigh impossible to save.

There are exceptions, of course. The people may finally commit to change and turn things around. Those changes will have to be sweeping and dramatic, and they will probably cost many members who leave as the church they know dies to become something else. They may prove financially expensive as well. For those reasons, exceptions to the 5-10 rule seem few and far between.

Before we lay all blame for dying churches at the feet of culture, then, let’s look at ourselves. Are we truly committed to doing whatever it takes to reach lost souls (short of sacrificing the integrity of the gospel)? Do we truly believe the desires of others come before our own preferences? Has your church placed itself on life support?

Only you can answer those questions.

Answer them honestly.

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Community

It’s inevitable, really. Whenever I join a new group of friends, or even whenever an older group gets to know me well, I get singled out as the group monk. Maybe it’s my lack of love life, maybe it’s my pursuit of knowledge, maybe it’s my dedication to God — or maybe it’s all the above (or none of the above). Whatever the reason(s), someone will eventually decide I would be a great monk. As one friend remarked a few months ago:
“It could be you. ‘We’ve not heard from Chris in a while.’
“‘Oh, yeah, he’s been reclusive learning the words of creation from a book of exalted deeds.'”

It’s funny, you see, because it’s true.

But when we talk about monks, we need to remember there are two categories of major monastic traditions. Anchorite monks, such as Saint Anthony of the Desert, are solitary hermits. On the other hand, cenobitic monks live their lives in monastic communities. Even though the word “monk” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “solitary” (monachos), it would seem some of those solitary figures realized a Christian life must still be lived in community. The life of faith cannot rightly be lived out alone in the desert.

I think we all have an innate grasp of that reality. We realize first that humans are gregarious creatures; we are social animals. One dimension of the imago Dei is the relational image. Like God, then, we are relational beings, and our lives are meant to be spent in relationships with others of our own kind. I specifically say “with others of our own kind” because some attempt to replace relationships with other people with pets or machines or some other surrogate (Crazy Cat Lady, anyone?). But none of them are equivalent replacements for another human soul, another being made in the image of God. As much as we’d like to believe Fido can understand every word we say, he’s incapable of expressing his doggy views on campaign finance reform, soteriology, and Mrs. Nesbitt’s low opinion of your casserole at the last potluck. Can we love such creatures and have a relationship of sorts with them? Yes, but it is the love and relationship of a greater to a lesser, a master to a vassal. It cannot serve as a substitute for the love among equals, for genuine human relationships and real human community.

If it’s impossible to be fully human without being part of a community involving other people, why would we think we can live a life of faith estranged from other Christians?

Recently I attended a dinner for one of our Sunday School classes. I have a standing invitation to their get-togethers, so I hastily made some macaroni and cheese (not the kind that comes in a blue box, either, but the real deal) and went to supper. Sitting at the table and listening to everyone swap stories, I was struck by two thoughts. First, I realized how much I myself missed being around the same group of people on a daily basis (a staple of academic life). Second, I wished each of our classes would do something similar. It doesn’t have to be a supper, although a common table has been the hallmark of Christianity since the time of Jesus. It could be a trip, a party on game day, anything. Anything which would bring people together and give them a chance to share their lives with one another. In the church of all places, we need those moments, those chances to rejoice, to weep, to laugh, to simply be present with each other without worrying about what comes next.

In an age defined by digital distractions, being mentally and emotionally present is increasingly difficult — and increasingly rare. We can all tell stories of going out to eat and seeing every person at another table on their phones. None of them were willing to be as present soulfully as they were physically. Things like that have repercussions. For one example, we use things instead of people as babysitters, and it turns my stomach. I admit I have no children (monk, you know), but it seems to me if you truly valued your children, you would spend time playing with them, teaching them, discipling them, disciplining them. You wouldn’t say, “Here’s my phone; now shut up and leave me alone.” You wouldn’t let an iPad raise your child for you. (Yes, you need time for self-care, but is that truly the best way to achieve that?) It’s a new form of absentee parenting: Dad didn’t leave, he’s just on the couch playing video games while the toddler sits glued to the tablet. There’s no interaction there, no community, only two strangers sharing space and a bloodline.

If parents can’t even live in community with their own children, it will take an act of countercultural revolution to get Christians to engage with one another on a personal level. Fortunately for us, Christianity has always been countercultural.

To live out this new counterculture, to reclaim the community which has been lost, we need to revisit a favorite verse we always quote for something else and add its context. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” We’ve all seen v. 25 used to tell us we should be going to church — and rightly so. But v. 24 adds another dimension to it. We come together to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” That can happen at a class supper, a lunch meeting, a trip with friends, a weekly time to check in with one another. It may find its fullness of expression on a Lord’s Day, but it needn’t be limited to corporate acts of worship. It is about living out our faith in a community of faith — the church. It is about being a part of a body (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). After all, a single body part can’t live on its own; it needs everyone else.

As the physical body, so the spiritual body. We cannot live out a vibrant Christian faith without being connected to a larger community. We can’t go off into the desert; we have to live and laugh with other people. Without others around us, our love grows cold, and without a love for others, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). So go be social. Live life in community. Be fully human, fully alive, and fully connected to God.

An Open Letter to the Church Universal

Dear Church,

I know. I promised both of us I would never do this, that I’d never write to you in public like a public service announcement. And while I hate to break my word to you about this — you know how that always hurts my soul — and while I wish there were another way to say this, there simply isn’t one this time. Too much is going on, and you won’t answer your phone. We need to talk, even if you really don’t want to. So . . . here goes.

I miss you. I miss you so very, very much. You used to be different. Simpler. More focused. I’m not saying you’re too busy or too complex or whatnot, but it just feels like you’ve lost sight of who you are. You don’t keep the Main Thing the main thing anymore, as the saying goes. You’re the Church. The Bride of Christ. The Body of Christ. Baptized believers. The followers of the Way. “Little Christs.” Our Mother, even as God is Our Father. Jesus told you that the very gates of hell itself would not triumph over you. You’re built on the rock, secure in the confession that Jesus is Lord. You’re a hospital for sick souls. A teacher for those who need knowledge of God. Among other things.

Church, do you notice the theme? The single recurring element in everything you used to be — and were supposed to be? Jesus. God. The Holy Spirit. The salvation of souls from hellfire, the regenerate Christian life of the new creation. That’s you! That’s who you are! That’s what you’re supposed to do! That’s the Main Thing! The gospel of Jesus Christ is the Main Thing! Remember how incredible the good news is the first time someone hears it? That the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that the Son of God emptied himself of all but love, came to earth, taught, bled, died, and rose again all for us? That we receive salvation, forgiveness, and freedom because of that, if only we believe? It’s the Main Thing.

So why did you leave it behind?

Don’t give me that look, Church. We both know it’s true, and it won’t do either of us any good if you feign righteous indignation like that. I know you’re just acting scandalized so you can get me to apologize and ignore the problem again. I can’t do that this time. This is just too serious to drop. Because I love you. I love you, Church, with all my heart. I love the way you help the poor, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. I love how you go into prisons and offer redemption to those who think themselves beyond it. I love how you tend to the sick and elderly, how you befriend the friendless, extend hope to the hopeless. I’m head-over-heels for how much you love the dying and minister to the grieving and heartbroken. And the way you sing? All of your rites and rituals? Your worship makes me weak in the knees, so much so that I can’t even stand up sometimes and have no choice but to kneel down with you. You’re my favorite. I love you.

I love you so much I can’t let you go on like this.

I get it. You’re part of — no, a pillar of your community. You want to serve it and honor it. And that’s great! We’re servants, you and I. We paint homes and wash feet. It’s who we are. But lately you’ve been crossing the line quite a bit — and blurring it even more than that. You trade worship services for community events that may or may not try to masquerade as praise of God. You let politicians into your pulpits to advance their agendas instead of preaching the gospel. I mean, you’re overly politicized in general, really. You know I enjoy politics, and you know I think you, Church, should spread the gospel even in political ways at times, but . . . really? You’re more worried about maintaining political power than producing genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. Church, the Bible only commands us and commissions us for one of those things; guess which?

You’re not you when the Main Thing isn’t the main thing.

While we’re talking about being active in culture, let me reverse that and discuss how culture is too active in you. I’m not against contemporary music (you’ve seen my iTunes), but the stuff you’re trying to pass off as Christian just . . . isn’t. Yeah, I know; you’re being trendy, appealing to the younger crowd. Great! Fantastic! Do it! Get them in here! But give them the Main Thing when you do. Sing songs with biblical lyrics, not empty appeals to emotions. I mean, yeah, give us Jesus with a beat, but please make sure you’re giving us Jesus. All these programs you have going on? Which do you really need to do? It’s grand to have things for every age group, but if we don’t let all ages worship together, aren’t we really just contributing to the demise of the family we keep saying we’re protecting? Relax a little bit. Don’t try to do so much, Church. You’ll only wear yourself out. And all these trends and fads . . . please stop. Jesus threw the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple, so please stop trying to sell me brown water impersonating coffee before the service starts. If you love me, truly love me, you’ll permanently ban anyone on the platform from wearing skinny jeans ever again. Right now. And cool t-shirts, cool tattoos, cool glasses, cool bar stools for preachers, cool music stands filling in for pulpits . . . just anything cool that has no function besides being trendy. Those trends change too fast and have too little substance.

You want to be cool; I understand. You want all the cool kids to like you; it’s only natural. But Church, you and I, well, you and I will never be cool. Remember our Main Thing? Telling people about a guy bleeding out on a cross will never win popularity contests. A mixed choir of kindergarteners and octogenarians will never win any talent shows, either. We will never be the cool kids on the block. And you know what? We were never meant to be. Remember when you were young and had to hide in the catacombs or be killed? Or how about all those times people called you “an alternative community” because it was up to you to offer the world something different than what was popular? It is literally in your job description to be uncool. You’re asking people to die to themselves, take up their crosses daily, and follow Jesus. You invite people to come just as they are but to leave new creations in the Holy Spirit, changing — repenting of their ways.

Total reorientation of one’s life generally isn’t popular.

Please, Church. Let it go. Let go of the idea you have to somehow make relevant the timeless word of God. It’s always relevant. Make it appealing, make it knowable, but don’t sacrifice bits of it on the altar of the false gods Relevancy, Popularity, and Cultural Clout. You do you. Be the weird kid who gets picked last at recess. That’s us, Church. The weird ones. The ones who put faith in a God we’ve never seen face to face. Who believe words written two and three thousand years ago are still absolutely true for absolutely everyone. Who sacrificially love everyone, even the ones who hate us. That’s the real you. That’s the Church I fell in love with and was called to shepherd.

Come home, Church. Come back to being you. Come back to the gospel. Let’s make the Main Thing the main thing again. Let’s go hug the homeless, give them a bed, and tell them about Jesus. Let’s hold hands and walk in faith, hope, and love one more time.

Because I love you. And I always will.

Love,

Chris