In recent years, Christians in the U.S. have heard depressing news about statistical trends. It can be summed up with a grand overview by Religion News Service “During the post-war, baby-booming 1950s, there was a revival of religion. Then came the societal changes of the 1960s, which included a questioning of religious institutions. The resulting decline in religion stopped by the end of the 1970s, when religiosity remained steady. Over the past fifteen years, however, religion has once again declined. But this decline is much sharper than the decline of 1960s and 1970s.” The decline has sharpened since the article was published in January 2014.
Many “mainline” congregations in NJ are valiantly struggling to keep their doors open, and over recent years I have witnessed much fear, doom & gloom, and even scare tactics spoken by Christian leaders “If we don’t do such-and-such, the church (or even Christianity) will die.”
We do indeed live in a rapidly changing world. But for Christians, there is no need to fear Christianity will die – or to think that the church’s failure (or success) rests completely on our shoulders! In the end, it’s not our church, it’s God’s church, and God has seen it through many other eras of very rapid change (e.g., the enlightenment & the industrial era which, arguably, had more change than the current technological era). Thus, on one hand, we can stay calm in the face of dire, depressing reports about Christianity, and continue steadfastly to give away what has been given to us – the “living stone” – that is, Jesus Christ. The heart of the church really is that simple, and hasn’t ever changed, even though societies have changed in each generation since the first Christian congregations.
Realistic Expectations and a Royal Priesthood
On the other hand we should have realistic expectations about our era and what that means for being church in the coming decades. There were many grand visions and strategies created by mainline denominations in the 1990’s and “the church growth movement” for extensive ministry programs and ploys to “market” to younger people to attract them to church. Unfortunately, the opposite happened, and fewer people are now gathering around Word & Sacrament in all denominations. Not to mention that believing “if we just do such and such, they’ll come…” also takes the church out of God’s hands and puts it into ours.
Here, then, are both ends of the spectrum: There’s no need to tremble in fear for the future of the church…and there’s no need to have wild or false expectations about our power and influence.
So then, with humble confidence, let us face the future. Humble, because we see that many friends, family, and people in general don’t find the Christian faith as meaningful or life-giving as we do. But confident, too, because the church rests upon the rejected cornerstone – Jesus Christ. First Peter’s advice continues to be helpful: “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” that is, Christ is the living & rejected cornerstone, who continues to build us up to be a living, spiritual community held together by him.
Pastor Ingrid Wengert