The way we talk about church decline may shape its future—and our belief
As editorial supervisor of the Anglican Journal, there’s little I can add to our overall discussion of the state of the church: the newly released statistics, the decline, the questions that loom. And, really, it’s not my job.
My job, as I understand it, is to help the church understand itself and its narratives: to present the facts—even when they’re uncomfortable—and to bring voices and views from around the church to our readership. The Journal’s staff has spent months planning this January issue, pondering how to help Anglicans wrap their minds and spirits around the church’s present situation, crucial for considering the tasks that lie ahead.
What I can offer of value, I think, is a brief commentary on the church’s stories of decline and change. I’ve worked in various arms of Canadian and U.S. churches for around a dozen years, and in that time I’ve observed two ways of talking about church decline that, I think, deserve some consideration.
The first category of conversation centres around the overall decline of Christendom—secularization, the rise of other faiths, the emergence of those who are “spiritual but not religious,” and other sundry factors for the recession of the Christian church into the annals of history. There’s nothing I can say to dispute these facts, and nor would I argue that the de-institutionalization of the church—the conversion of the church from an instrument of powers and principalities into an impoverished collection of spiritually desperate people like me who are keen on weak percolated coffee and a soundtrack set by Herbert Howells—is bad for the church or the faithful. As General Secretary Michael Thompson recently suggested at a meeting of the Council of General Synod, a church with smaller confirmation classes and larger heart for the poor, the mourners, the meek and those starving for righteousness isn’t a church that’s worse for the wear. And from where I stand, a church that actively trains clergy and parishioners about sexual misconduct is better than one that sweeps abuse under the carpet. A church that seeks reconciliation with the peoples it tried to culturally annihilate is better than the one that scooped up children and took them to far-away places, sometimes never to return. Thank God we are this new church. Many horrors are in our rear-view mirror—but, as always, they are closer to us than they appear. The church’s transformation is recent, fragile and ongoing.
This transformation doesn’t mean the end of the church, and it doesn’t mean the world is going to bring us down. I have travelled parts of the world in which the church will never return to the halls of power—but where the dedicated, however few, engage in the work of the church: lighting the candles, saying the prayers, breaking the bread and testifying to the ways in which our God is a God of great wonders and innumerable mercies.
The second category isn’t so much a kind of narrative as a way of speaking: the future tense. “The church is going to experience an incredible decline.” “We will have to make tough decisions.” “The church will change.”
Often, these imaginings of the “future” are grouped with conditional statements—conditions we must meet. “If we don’t do something, then churches will have to close.”
I caution us all on these kinds of statements for a few reasons. First, the church’s decline is well-rooted in the past and is deeply present among us. It isn’t just something that is going to happen; it has already happened. In addition, speaking of decline only as a future eventuality discounts the positive changes we have earned from the church’s being deposed, as outlined above.
Perhaps more concerning to me is the use of the conditional. Yes, everyone in the Anglican Church of Canada, from the farthest-flung pew to the office of the primate, will need to take action related to the church’s decline. (Arguably, nearly all Anglicans are already engaged in facing decline—average donations have risen faster than inflation within the church for a long time.) The problem with placing too much emphasis on our actions and too little on God’s will is, I think, that it exposes us to the promises of false prophets: those who offer us a “solution” to the church’s decline, wrapped up with a bow.
For example, some might argue that the church has failed to attract people because it has clung to that pesky, made-up God thing. Instead, it’s social justice and community that people need. I do believe these are real, true needs—but I also believe we still need God.
You might recall that time in the church when Moses was running slightly late from an appointment with God, and the Israelites decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us,” the Israelites implored Aaron (Exodus 32:1). We’re all tempted to build golden calves, especially when we’re desperate and the future seems uncertain. But as Albert Goodson wrote, we have come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord—trusting in God’s holy word. I have seen with my own eyes the unshakeable faith of people facing circumstances far graver than the church’s drop in membership, and I have seen God answer their prayers with abundant loving-kindness. Surely, we can apply the same standard to the church—and reject the notion that we should abandon our faith, abandon our principles or abandon our God. God has never abandoned us.
A final note on narratives: we sometimes hear talk of the early Christian church—the first centuries of the church’s life, before it became bamboozled and corrupted by power. Doubtless, this period can teach us much; my concern centres around a way of talking about the church that puts us toward the end of a story, among the closing chapters.
Dear friends in Christ, what if we are the early Christian church, with the lives of countless saints to be born after us? The church of those saints, whatever its shape, may be difficult for us to imagine. But we do know one thing: Every time two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, the true king, the church lives. Everything else is just statistics.