Friday, March 20, 2020

The Death of the American Church

As we continue to look at the implications of closing our churches for several weeks, perhaps months, we cannot ignore the hardest reality of them all: many of our churches will never recover from this. Many of our churches will simply die. 

I'm not speaking financially, although that seems to be one of the primary concerns of many pastors, who are encouraging their members to continue to give during this time so that the church still has doors when it comes time to re-open. What I'm speaking of is far more heartbreaking than that. 

I'm speaking of our Christians. 

We are going to see the development of two overwhelming groups of Christians out of our shuttering. The first is the group who simply unplug from church for the duration of the quarantine. They can't, or won't, stream services; they can't, or won't, stay connected. And they will discover their lives not all that different without the church in it, and they will drift away. When it comes time to reconnect, they will decide that they simply don't need the church in their lives, and they won't be back. In most cases, this group will be made up of the minimally-committed, those who were a little half-hearted to begin with, but it will also include scores of young people - a generation that has been leaving the church in droves - who come into heavy contact with a culture that is dismissive of the church and find themselves unconvinced of their own need to come back. 

The good news here is that once a seeker, always a seeker. There's something in our hearts that, once it's started asking the question, cannot so easily give up on it. And there will come a time for most of this group that they will start to drift back to us because their hearts just won't let go of the questions that brought them here in the first place. But the drift will be slow, so very slow, and may take years, even decades. 

The second group is even more of a challenge to deal with. If we do our job as the church during our shutdown, if we maintain our connections and foster relationships and take care of one another and remind our faithful that the church is much more than a building, we are going to have a not-unsubstantial group of them who take us at our word and discover that what culture has been trying to tell them for years is actually true - they can be Christians, even good Christians, loving God and loving others, without being in a church building on Sunday mornings. 

They will develop their own rhythms of worship. They will foster their own network of fellowship. They will form meaningful relationships with friends and neighbors, and in this time, they will even form these relationships with persons outside of the church. At least, outside of their church. They will do all the things that we've been trying to train them to do - they will read their Bible, they will pray, they will sing songs, and they will love one another, and they will do it all without us. And when we throw open our doors and welcome them back, they won't come. The church will have so little to add to their experience of the dynamic, vital, life-giving, Jesus-like faith they have developed outside our walls. 

This is the bind that the church is in. On one hand, this is what we have to be calling our members to. It's what we have to be reminding one another of. It's what we, as Christians, are called to do. It's the way we're supposed to live in the world. We want our faithful doing these things. And we don't want to fall into the trap of believing that the church is just a program, a service that we offer, so we're pushing them to continue to be a fellowship, to focus on relationships, to love with real love. 

At the same time, we have to maintain the essential nature of the church herself or we're going to lose the flock we so tenderly care for. We have to create a need in their lives for what we offer, a need that doesn't prohibit them from having the fullness of life God promised while we can't welcome them in our doors, but that creates in them a longing for something in our sanctuaries when we open again. It's a real challenge. To be honest with you, I'm not sure how we do that. Not in an age as cynical as this one. Not in a post-Christian world. 

We worry a lot in these times about our smaller churches, which are often our older churches. I don't know if that's right, either. Yes, our smaller and older churches are going to struggle, especially financially, but these groups of believers are usually bonded together in such a way that they're itching to come back to the fellowship. What we ought to be most worried about are our mega-churches. Yes, really. Our mega-churches already border on cultural movements. They have so many of the same offerings as the world. In a lot of ways, they function much like our local social clubs - a place to build friendships, grab a cup of coffee, talk about a mutual interest (in this case, Jesus). And it's this kind of fellowship that our members, if they are committed to being the church outside of our walls, are going to find in the world. They're going to become members of new circles, and it will be hard to draw them back into ours. 

The implications of what we're doing, of what we're having to do, are real. And they aren't just going to go away when all of this is over. The church is going to be reeling from this for a long time to come. I hope I'm wrong. I really do. But cultural studies, of both the world and the church, over the past few decades suggest that I'm not. If we do our job in ministering to our members and to our world with our doors shuttered, they will discover that they don't need us. 

Our only hope is that, if we do it well, they will still want us. 

That's what we are shooting for, and it feels like a dangerously small target.

(Note: I don't buy the myth that we don't "need" the church. As I've said many times, even on this blog this week, I believe the church and our physical fellowship is essential to the life of faith. I believe we need one another, and we need that sacred space where we are able to refill our pitchers so that we can pour out all over again. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this, and it will be a vision that is increasingly easy to lose sight of, especially if we have not preached Christ and Him resurrected, but instead have preached with an emphasis on simple goodness and love.) 

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