Please: Do me a favor and read all of this. If you stop before you reach the charge at the end of this blog entry, you'll just end up depressed, and I don't want that on my hands. Thanks.
There are only so many of us in this country, of course. As the number of those professing no particular religious affiliation has continued to rise to one out of every five Americans (20%, but I have also seen studies that say 30%+), so too in proportion has the number of the religiously affiliated flatlined or else begun to take a hard dive. We have already moved into territory that is well beyond the merely academic. This is where it gets real.
I mark it like this. It feels as though we're living in the beginning of a time when we now see fewer and fewer folks really even pretending to care (the trick is to watch the train wreck without actually getting on the train), and more and more churches closing, retracting, scaling back vital ministries until some are fully dessicated whilst the endowed concerns can shuffle on a bit longer. It feels as though we're burying the last couple of generations of faith-as-we-know-it, living off their planned generosity and major sacrifices for a while, and then in some profoundly lasting ways we're closing up shop. Effectively our clergy will either (1) relocate to remaining faith clusters in the Midwest and South and rural West or else to large metropolitan areas in the East, or go to big-steeple parishes and diocesan and churchwide enterprises to extend themselves into their pensions; or (2) relearn the skills demanded by the 65-hour-a-week commercial marketplace while helping the church manage itself from nonstipendiary sidelights when they can. Our approved seminaries and institutions of theological learning will either adjust their curricula or die off.
There will be bright spots and other exceptions that prove the rule - moments that do us proud and give us wonderful pause and a chance to praise God even from the Valley of Dry Bones. Congregations and pastors and bishops and partnering parallel institutions that see the light now and understand that it may be the lamp from the approaching train will be better equipped to call their own shots over the next decade if they can get their priorities straight between now and then. They will save for the inevitable, anticipate and adjust to painful change, and learn to participate in civic life as unapologetic voices of faith and reason and justice freed from the more traditional constrains their forebears knew. But in the main, it would seem that both the long-term survivability of evangelicalism and the wide swaths of Your Basic Vanilla Denominations (Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians) seems grim.
Here's a sign I'm right, even if I don't want to be: a lot of our magic-bullet thinking from the past decade or so has begun to fade. "If we just get a dynamic pastor" ... "If we just get more young families" ... "If we just take out an ad in the weekly shopper" ... "If we just hang out a sign" ... "If we just institute a Saturday night service" ... "If we just ---" (That's the desperation of grief tuned to bargaining, with depression and acceptance yet before us.)
That's what I mean by magic-bullets: voodoo thinking. Gimme one little lever and I'll turn the world. And you know what? Stop doing that. Bargaining about the survival of the church is arguing about whether or not you can make people care about something. You can't make people care. You can't offer a superficially better deal than sleeping in on the maybe one day a week when stressed-out people get a chance to breathe and see their families. You can't threaten people (with eternal damnation in some cases or social exclusion in others) and expect them to respond by kindly filling your pews and coffers and volunteer opportunities. You can't beat Facebook for pastoral care because it doesn't require you to church-hunt or sort through dogmas. Folks, the world has radically changed; the past is done; and we are undone, or are about to be.
What I want to say to all this is, By God, it's okay. It's gonna to be okay. It's all going to be okay. That is the remedy I find stewing at the bottom of just about every decent text on Christian spirituality. Stop chewing your nails down and stuffing your money in a mattress. Do you believe in the resurrection, or don't you? If you do, do you also happen to recall what happens - what has to go down - prior to resurrection? Will you walk this ugly Lenten path with me, and reckon with all the ugliness about our human desire to survive traumas by fading into the crowd during Holy Week, or are you going to live in denial?
I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition in oil-money-fueled Oklahoma in the Reagan era. Confidence that God was on our side was high. I was taught to prize certitude about Jesus above all things, and I can't say that's ever changed or ever will. But I was also subtly encouraged to impute that certitude into all other areas of life. To believe that material success in life and victory in Jesus were the same thing.
Well, now we've come to the end of that lie, or are shortly to arrive there. We have to climb up on the cross with Jesus and proclaim to those of the next generations who will have him that God is still making church, remaking church, into whatever and whoever it needs to be in its own small, death-smelling, vulnerable way. "Here is your son" ... "Here is your mother."
And if you happen to be one of those folks who thinks he or she might want to join a church anyway - maybe because it just seems so crazy these days, or you like a challenge, or you root for underdogs, or you have a hole in your soul that only a real community of faith can fill - if you happen to be one of those folks, get some skin in the game while you still can.