On why church decline conversations are so frustrating
Or, do we agree on whether or not it matters that people be Christians?
As readers of this Substack know, church decline is a regular preoccupation of mine, particularly in my own church bodies, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. It has been on my mind again lately, in light of reports from the Anglican Church of Canada’s statistics officer that the ACC lost 10% of its members each in 2020 and 2021.
It would be easy to dash off a post to highlight just how dire these numbers how and to express frustration that nothing seems to generate a widespread sense that urgent changes are necessary. For a little added kick, I could point out that in the business world, companies failing this badly would generally have their senior leadership sacked. I could then pivot to a comparison of the church with my time in one of the few growing unions in the US labor movement. I could discuss just how unembarrassed the union was about demanding that its organizers achieve measurable successes, in contrast to a church which seems unable to set goals to which it holds its leaders accountable. It nearly writes itself. And let me be clear: I stand by all of this. None of it is wrong. I have said it before, and I will doubtless say it again.
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But this isn’t what I want to reflect on today. Instead, I want to think about why it is that conversations about church decline are so frustrating, about why there doesn’t seem to be a shared sense of urgency, of crisis, of the disaster involved in our churches declining. I’m not hunting for a monocausal explanation. I don’t think there is one to be found. But what I want to propose is that part of the reason that these conversations happen (or don’t) in the way that they do is that we are not agreed, as a church, on the answers to some core questions about our identity and mission.
Specifically, I believe that our conversations about church decline would be much more clarifying if we began by answering the following questions:
Do we think that a relationship with Jesus is necessary to achieve certain goods (traditionally, salvation)? If the ‘relationship’ language concerns you, feel free to substitute ‘connected with’, ‘joined to’, or what have you.
Do we think that the church is the normative means by which that necessary relationship with Jesus is established, nurtured, and maintained?
If we answer ‘no’ to one or both of these questions – as I believe many in our churches, including in leadership, do – the stakes of church decline are very different than if we answer them in the affirmative. Let me explain.
If we answer ‘no’ to the first question, we might describe Christianity as one equally-valid means among others by which the God who underlies all religion’s accounts of ‘God’ or ‘gods’ works to bring people into a relationship with him. Or, to use less theistic language, we could call it one culturally-contingent expression of the human relationship with the Sacred, one version among others of the human search for meaning. To use language currently popular in religious studies circles and some seminaries, we might go yet further, calling it an attempt not at finding meaning but at making it, constructing a means of living with a modicum of comfort and peace in the face of a meaningless cosmos.
But perhaps it’s only the second question which we wish to answer negatively. In that case, we might think that the Christian account of God is in fact uniquely correct but that Jesus is already equally and fully present to everyone everywhere whenever they seek truth, or follow whatever religion they belong to, or attempt to live morally, or work for social justice. We in the church might have more exact, more correct language to describe what is happening, but we are simply articulating the Christ-life that everyone already lives, the Christ-light that already dawns in everyone’s heart.
In either of these cases, church decline might be something to be mourned but it is hardly a disaster. This is perhaps most obvious in the first case discussed above: if Christianity is no truer than anything else, if it is simply a particular human expression of certain eternal universal truths equally expressed elsewhere, what does it matter if people be Christians? What’s important is finding – or making – meaning somewhere. Maybe it’s another religion, maybe it’s tarot or crystals, maybe it’s politics, maybe it’s Harry Potter, but it certainly needn’t be the church. Decline might be difficult for those experiencing it, for those who are accustomed to find in the Christian religion their source of comfort or meaning, and certainly it would be important to provide pastoral care for these people. But decline, while sad, is no disaster – after all, the decline of organized religion just seems to be a consequence of modernity, in which people are freed to find meaning in increasingly informal, mix-and-match ways.
I think the same is true in the second case too. Here, of course, there would still be a commitment to the unique truthfulness of certain Christian claims about God, but if the church is not the normative means by which Christ is present to the believer, it is easier to be sanguine about the collapse of our churches. There is a loss, doubtless; it may well be a bad thing if for whatever reason people are failing to apprehend the truth about God and God’s love and express that apprehension through participation in church. But if Jesus is there just the same, working and saving just the same, a smaller church is nothing particularly to be feared.
Now, I don’t mean to be caricaturing either of the above positions. Whatever else Christianity is, it certainly is not less than an example of a broader constellation of beliefs and practices related to the supernatural that we call ‘religions’, and I do not think it is always wrong to analysis the Christian faith in these terms. It is also the case that certain of the goods that Christianity provides (sense of meaning, community, etc.) can also be found equally well outside the faith. And we might well celebrate that some of these goods (say, provision for the poor) are no longer only or primarily achieved by ecclesial means. What’s more, it does also seem true that there are features of what we call ‘modernity’ that make religious commitment harder to make and sustain, at least as modernity has developed in Europe and North America.
Moreover, within the sphere of Christian faith and practice, there are Scriptural and dogmatic grounds to hope that all will be saved, that Jesus will indeed be born in every heart, the Spirit poured out upon all. And while one can still find hardcore extra ecclesiam nulla salus types who assert that there is absolutely no possibility for salvation outside membership in the visible church, it is not uncommon to hold that God might – and most likely does – work outside the normative instruments of salvation he has given us.
But – and I’m sure you could sense the ‘but’ coming – I believe that the Christian faith requires us to answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions. I simply do not think that Jesus’ teachings are compatible with the notion that Christianity is merely one more species of the genus ‘religion,’ no more correct than any other. Quite the opposite: Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that no one comes to the Father except him. He claims to have unique access to the God he calls Father, claims in fact to be God! I just simply do not see how the Scriptures or the historic confessions of the Christian faith are compatible with the reduction of Christianity to one equally valid meaning-making system among others.
I have somewhat more sympathy with those who answer ‘no’ to the second question only. I do think it is important to remember that God has given us a promise that he will be present via the instruments of salvation he has given us, not that he will only be present via those instruments and no others. And I am sympathetic to a hopeful universalism, although I cannot bring myself to accept a dogmatic one. And yet! It is God’s business to use other means to draw people to himself if he so wills; it is my business to be obedient to the commands he has given me and to trust the promises he has given me. God has given me no promise that Christ is equally and fully present to all, no matter what. God has promised to be present in Word and Sacrament, to save us by joining us by faith to the invisible Body of Christ via his visible Body, the Church. And he has commanded us to preach, make disciples, and baptize to facilitate precisely that salvation. And so while we need not declare that belonging to the church is the only means by which one might be joined to Christ, we do need to hold that it is the normative means.
And if we answer ‘yes’ to these questions, as I think we must, church decline cannot be anything other than a catastrophe, because it means that people are not being united to Christ by the means he has given us for that very purpose. This, at the core, is why church decline keeps me up at night. It’s not about the decline of a particular institution or even of a particular way of worshipping God; much as I love TEC and the ACC in particular and Anglicanism in general, the church could survive without any of them. Still less is about the loss of stability for clergy (although I’ll admit that this isn’t fun). No: for me, church decline is a problem because I believe the church is the instrument established by God by which the reconciliation Christ won on the Cross is applied to us.
And this is why I am afraid that I cannot rest with the notion that church decline is just an inevitable feature of modernity, that we will simply have to adapt to being a smaller church, that it is enough for us to continue to care for the shrinking group of people who, for whatever reason, find themselves compelled to choose the Christian story among the buffet of meaning-making possibilities. Still less can I accept the notion that God wants the church to be small, that he desires practicing Christians to be a small minority within a non-Christian society (although it is very possible that our current decline across the West is because of divine punishment). In the short term we will indeed have to adapt our structures and figure out how to care for our flocks, no question, but we cannot stop there. Marginality simply cannot be our goal.
No: if we actually think it is important that people be Christians, church decline is to be lamented and to be worked against with every fiber of our being. Because people here in the US and Canada need Jesus and the church is the typically way that they get him. To be sure, it is God who gives the growth; there is no one neat trick to reverse our trends and grow the church, no semi-pelagian effort by which we ourselves can put our house in order. We are called to be faithful. And yet to say this cannot become an excuse for lack of effort. Our faithfulness must mean rejecting apathy about decline and working to better proclaim the Gospel to all people, because God commands us to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples.
So what are we to do with all this? Well, if the analysis above is at all plausible, it might help us understand why church decline conversations take the shape that they do. I daresay it will help me personally be less frustrated by some of these conversations, as what sometimes feels like inexplicable casualness about the coming destruction of our churches might in fact be perfectly explicable in terms of differing commitments about who God is and what the church is. It also means that for us to be able to respond better to the crisis we are already in, we may well need to get clearer on who we think God is and what the church is. There may be some limited technical fixes that we can all agree on, but it seems difficult to chart a way forward if we really aren’t agreed on why (or even if!) church decline is a problem. It’s perhaps typical that the historical theology PhD student thinks that better theology is part of the answer, but Hier stehe ich. After all, we have found in the ACC that those Anglican churches which actually grow are those which believe – truly believe, in a lived-out way — that evangelism is important. It is my hope and prayer that God might indeed use this time of tribulation to draw us closer to him, clearer on the basics, that we might better preach the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who need to hear it.
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I'm not sure how it does matter to God, and I admit some ambivalence about the implication for reward or framing a belief transactionally. That said, I think something like Christian practice is a profoundly truthful and empowering way for a person to be present in the world.
The mechanics of evangelism, of course, remain obscure. It's not just cheerleading, or being cloyingly friendly, or being obnoxiously honest, or being a doormat for others, but something else. Perhaps just doing the work is living without rivalry and envy because know a God who has loved us and has redeemed us.
Thank you for articulating this so clearly. Though I identify as an "institution kid" in the David Brooks sense, what bothers me most about church decline is not the withering-away of an institution, per se, however necessary that institution is to human flourishing. We've all seen the stats about people drifting away from church. But now, as a pastor of a once-flourishing parish, I personally know the names of dozens of people who used to be part of the life of the church and are no longer active in any church. Indeed, four of these are my own brothers and sisters. Obviously a variety of factors can be blamed, but this is happening everywhere.