Rector's Blog: Will The Church Survive?
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I hear this question so often. Sometimes it’s asked directly and explicitly. Other times it is implied. It’s not a new question, by the way. I have been an Episcopalian for 20 years, and I have been hearing this question posed in one way or another the entire time. I was baptized as an infant and raised in the church – in a different denomination – and in that denomination, the same question was being posed 40 years ago: Will the church survive?
Nationally, church attendance and membership is shrinking and has been consistently for a long time. I mention this only to say that the question doesn’t emerge out of thin air. We look around and see fewer people and we wonder if we’re part of a failing enterprise. There are individual churches that are outliers, but the overall trend of the Christian church writ large, and the Episcopal Church as a denomination was still clear. The handwringing and existential questions of survival have accompanied Christians in America for a while.
The pandemic, though, has brought the question of the church’s survival into sharper focus. Churches across denomination, tradition, economic status, culture, and geography have all taken big hits in terms of attendance and engagement. Many people have stayed home out of a desire to be safe. Others have re-prioritized their lives and found the church doesn’t have quite the place it had before. Church doors have opened and restrictions have loosened, but things have not, as they say, gotten back to normal. I’ve seen the fear and anxiety among mature practitioners of the faith who wonder when (or if) their friends and neighbors will rejoin them in the pews and in the ministries. And the question rears its head: Will the church survive?
This question is enticing and understandable, and I don’t see any reasonable way to actually answer it. We don’t know what will happen to the church. We have never known. Mary Magdalene didn’t know. Peter didn’t know. Paul didn’t know. Pope Gregory didn’t know. Julian of Norwich and Theresa of Avila didn’t know. Nor did Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, or Martin Luther King Jr. None of them knew what would happen to the church, and neither do we.
What we do know, and what we want to keep at the forefront of our minds, is why the church exists. The church exists for the purpose of restoring people to unity with God and each other in Christ. (I didn’t make that up, by the way: It’s in our Catechism.) We are not here to survive. We are not here to worry about our numbers. We are here to restore relationship. We are here to love the world, to love our neighbor in real and practical ways – ways that promote justice and peace among all people. That is why there is a church at all. We exist to love.
I’m not trying to sidestep the issue of declining church attendance. Christians have a lot to reflect on as fewer and fewer people see our presence in the world as particularly positive or meaningful. We should not shy away from this conversation. Nor do I want to minimize the feelings of grief and anxiety many of us have as our experience of church shifts. We don’t need to act like we’re too cool to feel feelings, too smart to worry. We’re humans. And we’re humans who are living through a time of protracted radical culture change. Amidst the uncertainty and trauma, it would be odd if we were not expressing some fear and worry.
We should not hide from all this. But we also should not pretend it’s the whole story of the church. And we should not pretend that the impending death of church as we know it is equivalent to the death of Christ’s work in the world. Jesus himself called the church into being, gathering those who believed in him into a community for the purpose of practicing unconditional love in God’s name. The world’s need to be united in Love is not dying.
We live in a time of rising mistrust and skepticism. And I don’t think it’s all about cynicism: a lot of the mistrust has been earned. People should not be shamed for being wary of those who call for unity but aren’t interested in pursuing justice, who call for civility but aren’t interested in working for peace, who call for kindness but aren’t willing to make sacrifices in order to promote equity. And yet: I believe that God is Love. And that it is in fact Love that will bring this world and all who are in it into a true and lasting peace. I believe the church is the Body of Christ – which means that we are meant to embody Jesus’ love here and now. In a world of mistrust, I believe that we have not only the capacity, but the responsibility to build relationships of trust founded in unconditional love.
Will the church survive? I have no idea. But while we’re here, those of us who call ourselves church know what our work is. We’ve got a world to Love.
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