The church in the United States is in decline. There is nothing particularly earth-shattering about this. It is reported nearly everywhere on a regular basis. In my corner of the Bible-belt, the reasoning that is often given for this is the increasing cultural secularization and pluralization. This, of course, likely has something to do with it, but this is certainly not the only reason.
I wonder if we have actually done this to ourselves.
The church has largely become another organization amongst others. We are another organization which can provide goods and services to people who want them. We have professionalized clergy and have set clergy as simply another specialty amongst others — when you are sick, you go to the doctor, when you are in legal troubles you see an attorney, when you need insurance you go to an agent, and when you need Jesus you see the minister.
We have stopped talking about stewardship in all areas of life and have begun talking about money (and why you should part with it), we have joined our faith with politics and nationalism in and unholy union which places our national ties in a stronger tether than our religious ties. We have functioned as though we are in competition with one another, and we have placed our hope and faith in strategic planning.
In my corner of the Bible belt, we prize large churches with large budgets because we assume that they are doing something right, and look down upon small churches with smaller budgets and assume that they are dysfunctional and even unfaithful. We have bought into the lie that numbers (both heads and dollars) are the most important thing. We have largely abandoned governance by assembly and have clamored for a king (or in this case, chief executive).
Above all, though, we have made the church a nice thing, but not an essential thing. We have made the church a voluntary association rather than the essence of who we are as Christians.
I wonder if we are missing the point
When I attend assembly meetings, so much time is spent discussing how we innovate, how we meet new challenges, how we do something new. But I do wonder if we miss the point of this all. Is it possible that the decline in the church is a result of trying to find the next hot thing? Have we missed the point, focused on the wrong things, and are now reaping what we have sown?
We assume the corporate structure and function of the church, we assume that strategic plans are our salvation, and we assume that the next program will cause us to grow. We assume that we must continue to discover new products to peddle and new ways to market those products.
But what if this is not the essence of the church? What if instead of a corporation we are the pilgrim people of God?
This, however, is not to be anti-institutional, this is not institution versus non-institutional but rather how we view the institution.
Are we a corporation or are we the pilgrim people of God? Are we a business or are we the Body of Christ? Are we to come up with new things, or do we simply strive to tell the same old story over again into all aspects of our life together?
Rather than trying to find something new to emphasize, what if we find something old to emphasize? What if our future is not in the new and innovative, but rather the old and time-tested? What if the future of the church is not in big buildings with complex multi-media experiences, but rather simply in the body of Christ?
What if our future is to be found in seeing ourselves as the body of Christ, and allow our ministry to flow out from that rather than a corporation with a chief executive?
Until we remember who we are, who we are to be, who we are called to be — until we remember that we are children of a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5) — I an doubtful of whether we will find our center, our purpose, our calling. And if we do not find these, we will never find growth, be it in depth or in breadth.