Archive for May, 2014

Whose is the Church?

May 13, 2014

I read a great blog last week from a Lutheran pastor who was speaking to her denominational body. Her denomination, like the PCUSA, has been losing members for several years, causing leaders within the church and people in the pews to bemoan the “decline” of the denomination. And it’s true that, if you look  at the numbers, the mainline denominations are in decline– all of them, across the board, some more than others, and including the PCUSA. Of course as analytical beings who are also dedicated to keeping our lives as change-free as possible, we have spent lots of time and money over the last several years trying to figure out what’s going wrong, why the new non-denominational church down the street is stealing all of our members, and just generally angst-ing about the whole issue. We wring our hands (and I have done my share of weeping and hand wringing, I’ll admit) and we stay frozen in place because we simply cannot imagine that church can be any other way than what we’ve experienced.

But the message that Nadia Bolz-Weber had for her denomination is a good one for all of us to hear: Stop saying the church is dying!

The church has been around for a long time, people. From shortly after Jesus ascended into heaven until today, the “church” has existed in many different forms and permutations. From house churches who shared all their goods together for the common benefit of all, to the great cathedrals of the middle ages whose imperfect priests led congregations of the poor and wealthy alike; to the small family churches and large mega churches of today, “the church” has always been more about function than about form. Functionally churches began as a way for believers to come together, to share Christ’s love with each other, care for each other, and share the gospel with others (ok, maybe that’s idealized and simplified, but that was the purpose at it’s core.) These early churches seem to have been communities of support and care, of teaching about Jesus and learning to follow his way, of sharing the good news with anyone who would listen.

Now we do hear of unrest in these churches, and we do know that their survival was tenuous at times, for reasons both internal and external (and who knows how many of these worshipping communities disbanded without anyone ever even hearing about them?) But many of them did survive and thrive and on account of this perseverance we today know who Jesus was and what he meant to the people of his day and hat he means to people of our day.

If we look at the big picture, we see that church membership and attendance has waxed and waned many times in the 2000 years since Jesus’ death. There have been times, such as in the mid-20th century, that churches in America were thriving, while in the Soviet Union even attending church could get a person arrested. And yet today Russia has a thriving religious community, while in the US churches seem to be in decline. Christianity in Asia and South America is booming, while in the US it seems to be dwindling. People seem to have so many choices of ways to spend their time– and they’re choosing not to attend church– especially not younger people. And so we wring our hands, fearful that our churches will soon all be silent.

The thing is, what we’re really afraid of is that church as we know it, as we’re used to, is going away. The old familiar hymns aren’t played as much, and in some places the organ has been replaced with a piano or–gasp!– a band with guitars and drums and all sorts of unfamiliar instruments. To those who grew up with organ music, with the great hymns, it seems sacrilegious to play instruments that are usually played in bars and clubs in church.  The rhythms of new songs are different than we’re used to and we might find them hard to sing. And people don’t dress up for church anymore– it all seems so unseemly. We have also put a lot of time and money and energy into our buildings and programs, only to have the next generation seem unappreciative of our efforts. And our churches get emptier and emptier with each passing year.

But so what? Do we really think that this means the church is dying? Are we really so concerned with numbers that we are going to throw up our hands, rend our clothes and hair in despair? Because I have news for you– and it was news that Nadia Bolz-Weber shared as well: this is not our church. Whether the church as we know it lives or dies, it isn’t our church. This Church and all of the churches that make up the larger Church– belong to God– the God who created us and our world, the God who came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, the God who is among us as our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And even if we have to give up our buildings and meet in catacombs once again, even if we can’t display our nativity scenes on the public square anymore, even if we don’t understand what is happening and why it is happening, God is with us. Our churches belong to God, Christ, and Spirit– and God has done a pretty good job of keeping things going so far. Maybe not the way we imagine it should be, but let’s not give up. For God’s sake.

So I join Nadia Bolz-Weber in saying this: Stop saying the church is dying! Stop all the hand wringing! Focus on being church– loving one another, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, celebrating the sacraments, studying the word– for that is what a church does, that is it’s function. Form follows function, it doesn’t lead it. And if we have to find new forms to follow those functions in today’s world, why is that a bad thing?