Updated: Sep 23, 2021
“The Shrinking Church”
“Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and the LORD Jesus Christ.
First, the bad news. Feeling anxious about church numbers? Worried about the long term sustainability of the church – any mainline Christian denomination? Let me give you the bad news first.
· In 2010, roughly 1/3rd of ELCA congregations reported an average weekly attendance of under 50 people.
· From 2003 to 2011, average weekly worship attendance dropped by over 26% in ELCA congregations.
· In a single year recently, ELCA membership decreased by 6%. 6%! In a single year.
· Nearly 1,000 ELCA congregations have either closed, or have merged with other ELCA and other churches in the past decade, according to ELCA statistics.
There are lots of reasons for this. First of all, this same trend is true of most social and service or civic organizations and leagues. When was the last time you went bowling? Or attended a Rotary Club meeting? Or saw a scout meeting? Attendance, joining, and generally affiliating with any social or service organization in America and elsewhere around the globe is way down. The power of the little devices we carry around with us…yes…our phones, our tablets, our screens. These are the places where America and the world gathers these days. Not in the bowling alley, or in the town hall, like we used to do, but anonymously, in the privacy of our own homes, around a screen. Think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. Or, at the local Starbucks, the coffee bar at Target, etc. And these shifts have had a dramatic effect on the church as well.
For better or for worse, the cat is out of the bag, and there’s little chance of putting him or her back any time soon. There is good news, however. Phyllis Tickle, the late Episcopal scholar historian, and author, has spent her entire career studying church and societal trends, and she’s the leading scholar of something which she and others now call “Emergence Christianity” – how the Christian church is not dying, but is in a 500 year cycle of reshaping itself. The church will always be the church, Tickle and others remind us. It’s just that it may look different from what it did in years past. She says that the church today is going through what she calls a “rummage sale”, as it has done every 500 years or so, since Old Testament times. And by golly, I believe she’s right.
Tickle says that the church currently is going through one of these 500 year re-formations, and it will emerge from this, looking less like it does today, but still, it will be the church. In her book, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing, and Why”, Tickle lists both the causes, and gives us a look at the church over the past several thousand years (see below):
We’ll start with the state of things in 2020, and count back in 500 year increments, to help convey Dr. Tickle’s points. See below:
2020 The current status of the church/world (you can add your own here)
· An increasingly secular world, where people just don’t join organizations any more;
· Fewer people call themselves “Christians” today than ever;
· Church hypocrisy; fighting among denominations, and others has turned people away from the church;
· Shifting demographics in our society and world (age; race and ethnicity; financial; etc.)
· Clergy scandals;
· Truth is now a “relative” term – your truth may not be my truth;
· How we gather today and how we use information;
· Darwinism – the sciences all have helped to contribute to the church’s influence;
· Two world wars, the women’s lib movement, Watergate, Vatican II, etc. have all contributed to a distrust in social and political organizations
1517 AD The Protestant Reformation
· The Roman Catholic Church comes under scrutiny by Luther and other church reformers for its hypocrisy
· The plague in Europe decimates the population; average life span is under 40 years;
· Scandals in the church, from the pope on down through local clergy;
· Protestant denominations emerge from Roman Catholicism;
· The papacy is challenged and forever changed, losing its dominance in the world;
· The invention of the printing press brings the Holy Scriptures to the masses, thereby reducing the church’s influence on its people (people can now access Scripture without having to attend church);
· Discoveries in astronomy reveal that the earth is not the center of the universe – this is huge!
1054 AD The Great Schism (Greece and Rome churches split)
· The Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church split over differences regarding baptism, communion, etc.
· Huge debate over using leavened vs. unleavened bread in the Sacrament
· Disputes over the language used in Holy Communion
· The Patriarch had Constantinople, the Pope had Rome, and ne’er the twain shall meet again
540 AD Council of Chalcedon (the Dark Ages begin)
· The fall of the Roman Empire is complete
· At the Council of Chalcedon, the western (Roman) and the eastern (Greece) churches fight it out over dogma, etc.
· The “two natures” of Christ are disputed (Jesus as both human and divine, etc.)
· Mary as the mother of God (vs. the mother of Jesus) – whoa boy!
· Gregory the Great as pope
· Monasticism begins
33 AD the Emergence of Christianity
· The temple (Judaism) is challenged by an emerging Christianity (after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus)
· 2nd temple Judaism (the Jerusalem temple is destroyed again in the 1st century)
· priestly Judaism
500 BC Babylonian Captivity of the Church
· Solomon’s temple is destroyed by Rome
· Judaism is scattered into northern and southern kingdoms (Judah and Israel); the 1st diaspora Jewish families were divided for generations in to north and south (in Scripture, God’s voice is silent)
· Davidic kings emerge and the Davidic line of kings gives way to the Messiah
· The age of Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Homer, etc.
1,000 BC The Age of Judges
· The establishment of the monarchy of the church leads to Davidic kings (above)
· Prophets emerge as the voice of God challenging kings and secular leaders
So now, the good news. Change, drastic change in the church, is nothing new. Tickle makes a pretty salient point that about every 500 years or so, the church goes through this cleaning of its house, so to speak. It evolves. It’s a process. And we in the 21st century church are in the midst of another of these seismic changes in the church. What will the church look like on the other end of this current reformation? Hard to tell, but my guess is that church as we know it now, with buildings, and temples, and structures, will not be how we do church. Instead, church may be done in small gathering spaces, homes, online. And yes, there will be large, and medium sized church buildings that can stand this shift, but church will look a lot different as it evolves. The good news is that the church is still the church.