The Good News Behind Declining Numbers

A Reflection on the Gospel for

May 24, 2015

The Feast of Pentecost

by David Somerville

One of the two Collects that begins the liturgy for this coming Sunday commemorating the birth of the Church lets us know that we are gifted with a higher consciousness, “the light of [God’s] Holy Spirit”.  It is this firelight of God, the Advocate, who came first to the original witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. It has been carried through time by generations of believers that remind me of successive torch bearers with the Olympic fire, making their way through countries, many of which may be on the verge of war with each other, to the site of the traditional games.  The olympic vision? To celebrate excellence through competition not by war, but playing hard at peaceful games. In like manner, the firelight of God is passed down to us not through space, but through generations of time. It has gone hand to hand from the original apostles, empowered on the first Christian Pentecost, down through the ages to the hands of our sponsors, who brought us to the waters of baptism. Through the work of their common sainthood, we received the laying on of hands.

Is there a need for us who have received the fire to work at passing it on? The answer, of course, is yes! But are some of us in the contemporary church familiar with discouragement about the state of the church today? Many of us probably are. It is hard not to wonder about our efforts in ministry with a beloved church that is smaller in size than it was a generation ago.

Our world continues to change — especially in the fields of communication and information management technology.  We have access to so much changing information about so many peoples and cultures that there never seems to be enough time to manage it.  The foreigner, whose folkways and language remains unintelligible, but seems to be crowding our borders gives rise to anxiety. Some people, because they don’t like anxiety, begin to resent the foreigner and what he sounds like when he (or she) begins to speak. What can this lead to? Situations with innocent refugees being rejected in over-crowded, abandoned boats on the high seas off the shores of Bangladesh. As I write this, I am aware that politicians exploit their more fortunate constituents with the belief that hoards of refugees will undermine their standard of living. So, then, people are troubled by their scary world. They are not poor; and yet they are not blessed. What is the effect of all this on the Church?

A recent CNN poll conducted by researchers from Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, came up with some findings that would concern anybody with interests in the future of Christianity in American society.  In 1990,  86 percent of the people polled reported that they were “Christian”.  Between then and 2014, the number had dropped to 75 percent.  The so-called “mainline” denominations, which includes Lutherans and Episcopalians,  have been reporting since the early 1960’s significant membership declines.   Concurrently the percentage of the general population that state that they have “no religious preference” has increased.  This is not news to most Episcopalians I know.  The trend has been monitored for years by the statisticians at our national headquarters, and is currently being responded to by our leaders who are designing a leaner central administration for our organization, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

As membership declines in the mainline churches, the mega churches, which are generally independent and conservative, have exploded from less than 200,000 members to more than 8 million! Their interest is not in faith community development to nurture the individual, but to display impressive crowds, the size of which is intended to “save” individuals from their fears of personal insignificance by making them feel like they are a part of something too big to be insignificant.

About six months ago, I had a conversation with a man in his late thirties. He told me about his family’s involvement with a non-denominational group. He and his church were quite heady over its expansion. He felt that he understood what the mainline problem was.  He said to me. “The trouble with your traditional, ‘brand name’ churches is that they don’t give straight answers to the questions people ask.  …And that’s what they want — answers, not more discussion and debate with all the confusion that comes from such activity.  They want the simple down-to-earth truth.  They want it from the Bible — like, for instance,  homosexuality. It is a sin, pure and simple.  And the other thing is racism.  Too much is being made of it.  I’m not a racist.  I just know that if the blacks would pull themselves up by their bootstraps — just like the way my great grandfather did after he came to America through Ellis Island— they would not need any more welfare than we do.  My church has a philosophy:  Read the Bible, and work hard while believing that Jesus saves. Then tithe, and God will reward you with material signs of his favor.”

When I finally let the talk between this man’s mouth, and my ear, die, I wondered to myself, Is this what the “No religious preference” people consider typical  when they think of Christians?  The compilers of the Trinity College poll suggested that the rise in the number of the unaffiliated was not about rejecting religion per se, but a reaction against the kind of exclusive, self-serving activism that began with the the Moral Majority movement back in the 1970’s with such allies as the Colorado-based group, Focus on the Family.

Some purveyors of Christianity with a political agenda package their pitches to appeal to the spiritually hungry, people who struggle to understand a technologically advanced world, but one that has the spiritual landscape of a hurricane. I suspect that there is a significant population of people who are as spiritually hungry as they are anxious. They are hungry enough to try anything — even if it comes from an alpha style personality whose message is “ I know Jesus loves you because I have Jesus in my heart, and he wants you to be more like me!”  The Trinity pollsters entertained some suspicions that the rise in the “no preference” choice does not have so much to do with the rejection of religion as it does with rejecting a product that is designed to bilk the gullible. But not everybody is gullible.

There is another class of people, the thoughtful skeptics — those whose minds can see the profit-motive in snake oil-religion sales made by media-savvy broadcasters.  It is neither spirituality nor interest in God that is rejected by the “nones” as the pollsters call them.  It is the rejection of scams that are disguised as Christianity by their purveyors in their quest for wealth and power over others.

I cannot believe that God’s authorship of our spiritual history is finished — not in this current state of affairs.  It cannot be complete without our uncovering the true meaning of our existence as a people reclaimed by our heavenly father in his Son, Jesus Christ,  We do this by succeeding at what we alone cannot do —build an effective church which is more than a spiritual amusement park.  We must face up to the reality that if there is to be a real church, then it will be a place where suffering still happens. Without it, there can be no real presence of the compassionate Savior. If it ends up having some inspiring new buildings with a garden (not out of the question), then the garden needs to have a Gethsemane element in it.  The authentic church cannot anesthetize suffering, if it is to be the redemptive body that transforms its members, leading them to receive the firelight that gives them a vision of a true reality to rejoice about. Does that make sense? No, It is both mystery and paradox.  (As I write this I am bemused at what a flop this essay would be if I were using it to  compete for a call to the pulpit of one of the more impressive megachurches that dot our nation’s countryside).

For life in such a mystery as his Church, God has given us a new friend,  his Spirit, the Advocate.  Now, perhaps, we who are in baptized ministry need to keep, figuratively speaking,  suppling the ink so that God may continue authoring the story of us in our growth in his Son’s stature.  After all there does appear to be a population out there.  To quote the beloved Jane Borthwick hymn of 1859, we all know, there may well be a new “… harvest plain [where] all around us waves the golden grain….”

As I take another look at the prayer that is “proper” for next Sunday I feel challenged to cast discouragement aside by its petition to develop, keep, and, by implication, share the gift of having “a right judgment in all things, [in order to] evermore rejoice in [the Advocate’s] holy comfort.

I believe that Pentecost 2015 brings into view the next big task of the great season of the green, growing life of Ordinary Time (with its extraordinary hope). And what is that? To complete our mourning over the departure of the larger church of yesteryear.  Perhaps we could demythologize some of its inflation by asking some questions like this one: How many of its “disciples” were of the fair-weather kind, who joined their large post-war churches because  membership was part of the inventory of American respectability  — along with a new station wagon in the garage of a Levittown House in neighborhoods where mortgage money was available, (but it was discretely understood in those days that for such mortgages “Negros need not apply”*).

I am looking at two mistakes I have made that have left me demoralized more recently than I would care to admit:  1) Remembering the past with unrealistic rosiness.  Maybe it wasn’t so great after all, and 2) Maybe the present and the future is not so bad either.  It is simply a little stranger and less certain than we sometimes wish it were.

Clearly I have a bone to pick with the man that I conversed with six months ago.  But we all have bones like that to pick.  So does God.  Just check out the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)  lesson for this upcoming day of Pentecost, Ezekiel 37:1-14.


Note to the reader:

* The disturbing remark about “Negros” was brought to my attention by Richard Rothstein, a guest on Terry’ Gross’s National Public Radio program, Fresh Air, last Tuesday.  His Book, The Making of Ferguson, Public Policy at the Root of its Troubles described the common practice in the North and South among Levittown’s financing banks of “redlining” that systematically kept the African American people restricted to designated, over crowded neighborhoods.

I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching

2  Oxford Biblical Studies

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s