Why the “Decline of the Church” is Good News

“Today there seems to be a breach in almost every wall. Some have said, the ‘cosmic egg’ that seemed to hold us together for a long time is now broken: ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men’ find themselves unable to put it back together again. It feels as if the earth moved beneath us somewhere in the mid or late sixties: the old certitudes, the agreed-upon assumptions, the core values of Western civilization came up for major questioning. Our presuppositions dissolved, and the questioning has not stopped for decades. We now find ourselves engaged in major and sometimes minor culture wars on almost every personal and social issue.”   – Fr. Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know

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I’m sitting in a cafe late at night talking to a couple of new friends and I ask one, “What does your religious journey look like?” And I can see the discomfort on her face as, knowing I’m a pastor, she struggles to say that church isn’t really working for her right now, the old answers just don’t seem to satisfy and it’s frankly easier to not go through the hassle of finding a church, when she’s not even sure what she believes.

Of course I gasped; said “you heathen!”; upended the water glass and stormed off, avoiding her the rest of the trip.  (Spoiler:  No I didn’t.)

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I was listening to NPR on my way into the office yesterday morning (one of the things I missed about actually going to work), and they were reporting about a study of religious life in America. And despite the volume of the Evangelical right, and the growth of mega-churches across the country, fewer and fewer people are actually going to church. I think that’s telling. Not that one has to attend a church to be on a spiritual journey, but in my experience, most people who are on such a journey desire to be around others on a similar journey.

Which makes me wonder about the contemporary church. I think most people (clergy included) think of church as an institution with a product. They have a particular way of seeing the world (we call this a theology) and their job is to communicate that product, instead of seeing the church as a gathering space for spiritual pilgrims of various beliefs. (This, by the way, is the heart of my church.)

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I can count about 5 conversations like the one I recounted above during my Sabbatical; conversations with people who are deeply spiritual, but decidedly not religious. And rather than discouraging me, these are the kinds of conversations that I thrive upon. Talking the finer points of particular theologies may have given me life in my early twenties as a young seminarian, but it now drains me.

I’ve come to believe that we’re all deeply spiritual – if you just ask the right questions – and that many of us mistrust institutional religious structures, or at least are having a hard time figuring out the role of the church these days. I’m not against religion per se – except when it keeps people away from the love of God, when it teaches hate, not love, when it’s more about preserving “our tribal identity” than being the hands and feet of God and throwing open the doors to the world and saying, “God already loves you all.”

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You know, some people get discouraged about these kinds of things and bemoan the loss of America’s moral compass or the demise of the church. But I’m actually excited to live in the time that we do. I’m excited that people are open and searching. Of course, for some, the loss of certainty is the pathway towards despair, but to paraphrase the Bible, “those who seek, will find (eventually).”  

As for the church, this really is a great time. It’s a great time for the church to refine itself, to question everything, to think about the ways we’ve lost our way and to recover the heart of Jesus for the world. It an opportunity for the church to remake itself not in the form of a monolithic institution but rather a safe place for those on spiritual journeys, seeking to find their way home.

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  • Paige Staes Whitney

    Charlie…you keep “wowing” me with the timeliness if your topics…Mind Blown! I have been struggling with the concepts of “religious” and “spiritual.” Up until maybe a week ago, my go to was that I wasn’t overly religious but very spiritual… but I’m finding this to be a misrepresentation of the truth. I’ve mixed up religion and religious…what so.e have told me us quite common, especially when someone like me us on new journey, trying yo disspell old teachings and opening ones mind to new concepts.
    I also saw the “church” as an institution, a place/building that I went to every week…I followed the crowd through a set routine and left at the end feeling a void. But I went along doing it “bc I had always done it that way.” During my journey though, I found churches that were exactly as how you described…a place of gathering, a network of support, and others on similar journeys.
    What I have found and learned in just a shirt amount of time has been life changing…mentally, physically, and spiritually.