This graph appeared on my Facebook feed today and is difficult to share, however not surprising. And, since I’ve seen way too many of these posts lately, the decline has nothing to do with prayer in or out of school or force-teaching Christianity (the Bible) to students in public education. Newer generations would have to roll back a century or more of advancement in our common knowledge to be ready to swallow antique, spoon-fed versions of Christian faith. The Biblical idea of creation as a three-story universe with the sun, stars and the moon fixed in their courses is hard to even imagine for my children (never plausible for me either.) The notion that the earth is under 4 billion years old and that the best answer for understanding the Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous periods (dinosaurs) is to assert that human beings co-existed with T-Rex is only fodder for fun movies. I could go on and on here. We are capable of great learning and discovery, wisdom and folly and all of it part of the collective intelligence of the universe and to expect a student today to reject their place in the cosmos is not wise.
We have failed to relevantly teach/share the gospel in our efforts to placate folks in the pews who for whatever reason are/were not ready to take the spoon out of their mouth and entertain the notion that at least some of the medicine (IE scriptural literalism) they were taking had spoiled. In the place of using our spoon to feed the hungry and strengthen the oppressed, we chose to attempt to polish the silver already in place as if the table would always refill itself, ignoring the plight of those searching for spoons in our midst to sustain their very lives. Now we may sense we are in a state of crisis as we look toward a brief bleak trajectory. Disciples of Jesus failing to understand the intended impact of the gospel in the lives of others though is nothing new, just read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for examples.
Of course there are exceptions to the trends in this graph and many, many good people who have sounded the alarm for decades and done all they can to set corrective measures in motion. Maybe it is too late to turn the charts around, but that is not the question we need to ask today, 40+ years ago maybe. The question for today is WILL we be the DISCIPLES we are called to be WHERE we are with WHOMEVER we find ourselves? Will we let go of FEAR and embrace LOVE and GRACE as the motivation for EVERYTHING we do in the name of Jesus Christ?
The institutions that support the body of Christ may cease to exist over time, and that is sad in many ways. It is also only a place on the continuum of human life; institutions including the church have a life cycle. Having asked the important questions for our present moment, we must be willing and ready to embrace an emergent spirituality and forms for Christ’s body in our midst. Yes, that means our spoons are probably going to get dirty, tarnished, worn and may even need to be replaced. I have to admit I’m a little scared by this graph and the idea that denominations may no longer be sustainable within 20 years, after-all I’ve invested my entire adult life (26 yrs) in preparing for and participating in ordained ministry supported by the institutional church and I have more than 20 years left before I can retire. Not many other career tracks require a Master of Divinity degree.
I’m also excited by the amazing opportunities we already have to engage spirituality and culture in this new day, to be the prime witness of Christ in the lives of younger generations who have never heard of God’s unconditional love and abundant mercy! I’m hopeful as old spoonfuls of “faith supported” racism, sexism, hetero-sexism, class-ism and other forms of oppression are exposed and debunked, the health and wholeness of the body of Christ will be restored. I’m confident the gospel has never lost relevancy even if the church forgot to preach and teach the good news in relevant ways. I believe the call to ministry is clear, professionally supported or not, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Oh, and the future of the church is already here.
Peace & Joy,
Rev. Robert Bushey, Jr.
PS. Graph above is the result of the work of Jeff Gill with data from Disciples Yearbooks. With the newest edition in our hands Jeff commented: “This is projection past 2013, but here’s the actual 2014 numbers from the new yearbook: 469,212 — Participating is 290,916 (decline of 15,859, 5.2% drop) — worship 172,632 (decline 4,404, 2.5%). So the projection holds up.”