Is The Church Really in Decline? (Pt. 1)
Is the church really in decline? I think that depends on how you define “church.”
Look, I know that there’s been a lot of ink spilled about the decline of the church in North America. (And I no longer have to modify “church” with “mainline” anymore, as it is indeed the whole church – from liberal to conservative, Roman Catholic to Protestant, evangelical to mainline – that is now in decline.) And I know that the numbers occasioning this spilled ink are pretty much incontrovertible.
But here’s the thing (actually two things, the first today and the second next week):
Let’s be clear that when we’re talking about church decline that we’re talking about the Church in North America and Europe. That, I believe, is critical to remember. In Latin America, in Asia, and in Africa, the Christian Church is growing, more so than any other religion, including Islam. (For more on this, see Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity [2002; 3rd edition, 2011].)
This grown has been so significant, in fact, that after centuries of the European and North American churches sending missionaries to distant countries (including my grandparents, who spent twenty-five years in India), we in the U.S. are now often the recipients of missionaries from these countries. The Gospel, in other words, not only took hold in these lands, but too off.
So why are the churches in these countries growing and not so much in North America and Europe? While there may be a variety of reasons, I would hazard that one of the dominant ones is the incredible affluence enjoyed in Europe and North America.
Affluence, you see, tends to provide a pretty strong buffer between you and death. I should probably clarify. By talking about “death,” I don’t mean merely concerns about the afterlife – goodness, but I hope faith is good for more than simply a ticket to heaven! – but rather I mean “death” in the sense of our inescapable mortality. That is, affluence can insulate us from admitting our own vulnerability, our own humanity, even, and certainly our own need. For if religion does nothing else, it reminds you of, and helps you to cope with, your mortality. “From dust you came,” we say to each other on Ash Wednesday, “and to dust you will return.” A reality as unpleasant as it is unavoidable that we nevertheless regularly hide from via our possessions and wealth.
Affluence also tends to give us a sense of control, even mastery, over our environment and to appreciate, and perhaps at times to exaggerate, our abilities. Affluence, after all, has led to great progress, and progress in turn has promoted greater affluence. In such an environment, the language of sin can feel outmoded, even offensive. Rather than serving as a truthful description of brokenness and as an essential admission of our failing that we might seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and reparation, sin instead comes across like a mark of failure. To admit sin seems to betray the belief in ceaseless progress that rests near the center of affluent cultures. Sin risks puncturing the “every day better and better in every way” mantra of the affluenc West. (Moreover, we in the church have not always helped matters with regard to our talk. Sin, keep in mind, literally means “missing the mark,” a true description of how we fall short of God’s desires and designs for abundant life. It was originally meant to be equated with truth, not with shame, I believe, but we have let it become so and as a consequence the affluent society in which we live has little room for such talk.)
Finally, affluence creates a crisis of choice. As Barry Schwartz talked about in his TED Talk featured here yesterday, the unbelievable choice available to members of an affluent society can be rather overwhelming and make almost all options seems less attractive. Sunday mornings are a market place of competing possibilities for our time, attention, and energy. Why go to church, more and more wonder, when there are so many other things to do that might benefit us more?
Now think, for a moment, of the disparity between this picture of abundance and the economic landscapes of the countries where Christianity is not just flourishing but growing. These are places where mortality is far more present, where “sin” helpfully explains some of the conditions in which people find themselves as well as some of their own behaviors, and where the absence of choice makes the community, fellowship, and encouragement of the faith attractive. Little wonder, then, that the church is growing there as it once did in a less sheltered, less buffered United States. There is much we might learn from the growing church around the globe, I suspect, if only we paid attention rather than focus on our own decline.
Well, I’m sure there are many other reasons the church in this land is struggling while it is flourishing abroad, and I’d be glad to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments below. But for now, when thinking of a declining church, I find it helpful to remember that God’s church is bigger than the denominations and lands I survey and that, on the whole, there have never been more Christians. God’s Word will continue to go out and it will not come back void.
All of which reminds me of one of Luther’s explanations in the Small Catechism. Commenting on the petition in the Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come,” Luther reminds us that “God’s kingdom comes of its own whether we pray for it or not. In this prayer we ask that it would come also to us.”
Amen. Come Lord Jesus…even unto us.