Thursday, June 1, 2023

A Declining Church

In many ways, I think the shift in our tone of worship and gathering is responsible for the way the church has changed and, sadly, diminished in the past couple of decades. 

It wasn't that long ago that the church had services on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Tuesday or Wednesday evening, and routine gatherings at other scheduled times, and our congregations were there, every time. In large numbers, we were showing up. The vast majority of the church could not be kept away if the doors were open.

This was true about small groups, too. I remember when I came into my church, almost everyone was involved in a regular small group fellowship. I'm going to say more than 85% of the church, and that's being conservative. I could identify the members of my church and which small group they were part of, and as I sit here, I can't think of someone who I knew wasn't in a small group. (Today, small group numbers are, at best, usually around 40% of a church's membership; in many cases, far fewer.) 

Slowly, over the years, that has dwindled. A few dozen show up, maybe. Or maybe just a dozen. Many churches have suspended all of their gatherings except for Sunday morning. Small group ministries are barely afloat in most places. And we look around, and we want to blame the culture of the world - a culture that has opened itself up on Sundays and drawn "the faithful" away. 

But I think it's us. I think it's this shift toward contemplative Christianity that we're experiencing. 

Contemplative Christianity is really introspective. It's a very personal, private, intimate experience. And that does two things. 

First, it requires a lot of emotional energy. It requires focus and discipline and a willingness to think deeply about things. A lot of us don't have the energy for that all the time. We are tired after doing all of our other daily tasks, all the things that life requires of us. The last thing we want to have to do is discipline ourselves and think deeply about things. We don't have the emotional energy for it, and somehow, it always seems to lead us back to our absolute weariness. So we go to church on Sunday because we still love God and we're church-going people, but that's about all we can handle. 

Second, it convinces us that since Christianity is basically a contemplative exercise, a discipline, a personal and private thing, we don't really need to go to church at all. This is what we're talking about when we see the "spiritual, but not religious" crowd - they've been convinced by a contemplative Christianity that they don't really need to be in the church. And well, back to our work-a-day world - if there's something on your calendar that you don't have to do, that doesn't really nourish you in a vital way, then why do it? 

Contrast that with the way that church was not that long ago. When we were rejoicing together, church was about setting yourself free, not locking yourself in. It was about letting your spirit dance and letting loose for a bit. It was about coming together and making a joyful noise. Not that long ago, you simply couldn't have the same experience by yourself that you had in the church. One of our elders used to greet us and say, "It's better because you're here." And it was! It was better when everyone was there. There was a togetherness about it that contemplative Christianity has simply sacrificed. We've lost it. 

When fellowship was part of the worship experience and not just the time-killer before service starts, when engaging in the worship instead of just being entertained by it was expected, when small groups formed and stayed together for years and not just the time it takes to study one six-week curriculum, when church was an engagement and not just an experience, the church was booming. When we had the joy of the Lord in our midst, we were thriving. 

What happened? Contemplative Christianity happened. The emphasis on the personal happened. The quiet, solemn, disciplined introspection happened. 

I think way more than the culture of the world, this is what changed the shape - and the size - of the church. 

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