08 Aug Church, Do Not Despair!
Much has been made of the decline of the Church, particularly mainline churches, over the past several decades. Dropping attendance, inability to maintain buildings and property, loss of influence in the public sphere, the emergence of the “spiritual but not religious”—take your pick, there are lots of ways to slice and dice what is “wrong” with the Church and why.
But as I have been saying with some regularity to my congregation, “not everything is as it appears.” Recent research indicates that not only has the church’s impending doom been greatly exaggerated, Christianity is, in fact, growing stronger, not shrinking, according to scholars at Harvard and Indiana University Bloomington. The researchers proclaim that religion continues to enjoy “persistent and exceptional intensity” in America. The Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion adds that the percentage of church-attending Americans relative to overall population is more than four times greater today than it was when the country was founded in 1776, and the number of attendees has continued to rise each and every decade over our nation’s history right up to the present day.
None of this is very comforting to those pastors and congregations who have watched their numbers dwindle, shuttered their sanctuaries, and grieved the loss of their faith communities. Nor am I suggesting that the church doesn’t face some strong cultural headwinds to remain healthy and vibrant. But the research reminds me of a couple of things. First, God established the church and God will continue to ensure that there are strong, resilient congregations throughout the world. This has never been in doubt.
Second, I am reminded that there are strengths, gifts, and opportunities that the world needs and the church is uniquely equipped to offer. The website FinerMinds offers a list of “Twelve Powerful Benefits of Spirituality for Millennials” which I believe applies to all ages and which we experience profoundly in the church:
- Learning forgiveness
- Finding a purpose in life
- Reducing stress levels
- Receiving hope and love and nurturing them in others
- Overcoming challenges
- Developing greater authenticity
- Growing in a spiritual community
- Building and mending relationships
- Living longer
- Boosting positive, hopeful thinking
- Contributing to a better world
- Discovering a deeper meaning for life
All of this leads me to say: Church, do not despair! Lift up your head and speak God’s truth with love, honesty, and joy. Offer your gifts with confidence and even expectancy. Remember that God’s redemptive purposes cannot and will not ultimately be thwarted, and we have a job to do, for God’s work in us is not yet complete and God’s work for us in the world is not yet finished.
Yours for the Kingdom,