“Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church. The United States is fast-becoming a society where Christianity is being reorganized after religion.”
With these words, Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of American Christianity, began a recent on-line column. These words are the thesis of her new book: ChristianityAfter Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. She is naming what people who pay attention to the contemporary church have been saying for the past several decades: the church as we have known it is dying. Despite the way religion is used to bludgeon people in the political sphere and despite the large number of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” now even people in the pews at all kinds of churches recognize the big change that is happening in American churches.
The so-called mainline Protestant denominations (non-evangelical Protestants such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, etc.) have been in steady decline since the 1950’s. In fact, First Christian Church of St. Joseph pretty much fits the national model of this group’s decline. Our sanctuary, built in 1918 to hold almost 700 people was packed into the Fifties on Sunday mornings, but from the early 1960’s forward our numbers have declined. Today, although our sanctuary remains beautiful and deeply cherished by our members, it is many times larger than what we regularly need. Although this decline in numbers is due to many factors including changes in our community and decisions made or not made by First Christian, one factor among others is that our church building and many of our church practices and events were made for a different time.
We are not alone, however, Catholics and conservative Protestants are also seeing significant declines in membership. One recent study revealed that 1 in 10 Americans considers herself or himself an ex-Catholic. About twenty years ago, it was common for evangelical churches to gloat that they were growing and mainline Protestants were not, because they were preaching the truth rather than a watered-down Gospel. Today, they are no longer gloating. Sure, there are exceptions; every town has one or even several large evangelical churches, but for every one of them, there are tens or even hundreds of other similar churches in free fall.
It is easy to look at society’s rejection of church and judge it as a sign of our nation’s godlessness, but Bass offers a different perspective by pointing to people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” "’Spiritual and religious’ expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one's relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches -- and temples, synagogues, and mosques -- that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world. Americans are not rejecting faith -- they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions.”
1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)”
Do these questions sound familiar? They should, because they are the questions that most churches are designed to answer—including First Christian Church, even though we would rather not admit it.
Bass says that the questions people are asking and that churches should be trying to help them answer still have to do with the “3 B’s” of believing, behaving and belonging, but they have a decidedly different focus. “Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:
1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)”
If Bass is correct (along with many other writers and scholars), then churches that help people answer this new set of questions will not only survive but live on to help shape the Christianity of the future. Churches that exist only to try and answer questions people are no longer asking will find themselves to be living anachronisms—assuming they are still living at all.
The good news is that God is bigger than any church and even bigger than any idea of church. God will still be at work in our world and in our society; just not in the same way. Love will still be love. Grace will still be grace. But the church. . . who can say? A community of believers that remains faithful to God rather than to a past way of doing church, however, will still be around for whatever ways God will work next.
Grace and Peace,