I don’t remember thinking that much about the future of the church in America when I started out in pastoral work, but lately I have started to wonder. Not in a defeatist kind of way, but with a genuine curiosity about what’s going on.
What we know:
- Attendance and engagement are down
- Confidence in the integrity of the church is down
- Frustration with the church’s involvement in politics is up
- The rise of Christian Nationalism is causing unrest and fear
- An ever-increasing number of people are shedding any and all religious affiliations, opting for other sources of meaning and purpose
- Replacement and bespoke religions are on the rise
- Despite the wealth of Bible-related podcasts, apps, and free online resources, Bible fluency is suffering some obvious losses
For those of us who pastor local churches, there is a real impulse to save the situation. We want to fix what’s broken, if only because we love the people in our congregations and we want nothing more for them than a rewarding and grace-filled relationship with God. I know that this is how I feel. And the truth is, it hurts when I see people drift off and even disappear from the church.
Our present time feels dislocated and dizzy. People are shifting and searching, and if we’re honest, pastors are struggling, too.
One thing I’m working through:
Fear of what’s being lost will not prove very helpful
When something like engagement drops, we grow afraid, and then we react with pop-up sermon series and programs, all aimed at correcting the behavior that’s frustrating us. Fear of loss can breed shame-based responses. This is not unique to the church, by the way; culture is quite good at emotionalizing what we should and should not do, and it’s rooted in persuasive guilt. We have to be careful not to adopt such an approach.
- Getting on peoples’ case about missing church will work only in the short-term; they’ll come once or twice, and then disappear again, maybe for good
- Sermons about “what’s wrong with our world” will only further divide your people, and they will come across as fidgets and rants
- Being upset with people who have left has more to do with our own feelings of failure and lost relationships, so be aware of that impulse
Perhaps in this time the church’s role is to be a patient and understanding community. Perhaps the job of the pastor among those are who are drifting and disappearing is to make sure that the light is always on, and that when they are ready, the pathway back into the community is paved and easy to travel.