The Church: Dying & Rising

Image by Dale Forbes from Pixabay

This spring one of the synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had to cancel its annual assembly because they couldn’t gather a quorum. A synod’s assembly elects leaders and adopts budgets. A synod’s assembly affects every congregation in the synod, yet they couldn’t make it happen. Our congregation had to cancel Vacation Bible School this summer due to a lack of interest. Congregations all over are registering lower participation levels in all aspects of congregational life. The pandemic did not cause this – but it accelerated it.  Twenty years ago, the average church member attended worship twice a month or more. Today it is once a month or less.

The first response to this trend of growing non-participation is that we must be “doing it” wrong. We haven’t adapted to change. We haven’t given people what they want and need. The church is not trying hard enough or saying the right words. There is perhaps some truth to this. Congregations can make lots of choices that are not helpful.

A second response is to “repackage” and work to make the church more attractive or more “relevant” to people. We offer the church as a better way to be busy or a more correct way to live. This is what churches that offer a “prosperity gospel” or a “self-help” model do as they promise an economically blessed or more fulfilling life if you come to church. This is a marketing maneuver, I think. It either immediately, or eventually, robs the gospel of its grace and love as we prescribe works that are necessary to save us.

It seems to me, however, that the larger issue is that these are a sign of the times. In a world that is more and more secular – meaning that God and faith have less and less and less to do with the individualized “search for the self,” in an age where the necessity of community is eclipsed by individualism, in an age where “busyness” is the means to measure life instead of depth, wisdom, meaning, the church is more and more unnecessary for more and more people.

In 1950 73% of people said they belonged to a religious organization. In 2020, it is 47%. Since 1998, every generation (Traditionalists born before 1945, Boomers born between 1946-64, Gen X – 1965-80, Millennials – 1981 -1996, Gen Z – 1997-2002) has become less affiliated with religious organizations. In the late nineties, only about 10% of people said they had no religious affiliation at all. Today the number is climbing toward 40%. The younger the generation, the fewer affiliate. Parents have always been the biggest influence on the faith of their children. As each successive generation of parents moves away from the church a little more, their children move even farther.

Does this mean the Church is dying? Does it mean that faith is dying? In some ways, I have to say. “Yes.” Death is here. The ways we think about church, faith, discipleship, membership, and worship, are all undergoing changes that will kill off what we thought was the truth. Yet, the future of the Church is not in our hands. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit. While the church is dying, it is also rising.

Our congregation, for instance, continues to attract people who want to be here – although for different reasons than days gone by. We are doing more than ever to serve our neighbors and make a difference in the world. We’re seeing participation in ministry changing to different models and ways of connecting. God is doing a new thing – if we can just discern what it is!

There are lots of questions about how we address this dying and rising. I must say that I don’t feel like I have lots of answers. The thing I know most deeply is that I don’t know much! The questions, however, I do know.

  • How do we address the fact that people want kids confirmed but the kids are unable to participate in a program of faith formation?
  • How do we tell if we are reaching people if fewer people show up?
  • How do people connect with a God who promises to be with us when we gather as the church in Word and sacrament?
  • Is it possible to work to reverse the trend to reject life connected to a religious community or has the ship sailed?
  • How will a congregation that is organized to invite members to lead go forward if everyone is too busy to do the work?
  • How do we help parents keep their promises to raise their baptized children in the faith if we can’t get the kids together or the parents to help?
  • How do pastors care for the congregation when the members are increasingly unknown and unconnected?

There are a hundred or more questions, and so far, clear answers are fleeting or not forthcoming. That is, however, where faith enters. The future, even when uncertain, is not ours to fashion. We are called to trust that God is now and will be the answer to every question and calamity. So, we let the church die, so that God might raise it up in ever new ways.

Pax Christi, Tim Olson – Lead Pastor

copyright 2022 Timothy V. Olson – all rights reserved

previously published by Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Creation Groans

The Book of Psalms offers a universal vision of worship and praise. It is not just God’s people who praise the Lord. The chorus of praise is joined by all the nations, every ruler, and very loudly, by creation itself.

Praise the LORD!
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds! (Psalms 148:1; 3-10)

Stars give praise by shining, waters by being wet, and bees by buzzing. Cows moo, apples are tasty, stormy winds do their part, and even sea monsters are, well, awe-inspiring and scary! Joined to the hymns sung by the faithful, the cacophony of creation joins the praise to sing to the Lord!

This may be a strange image for us. We don’t think this way or notice creation as beauty and signs of grace. We see creation as ore to be mined, trees to be cut down, and food to harvest. The evidence of our objectification of everything (even other humans) has led us to God’s creation in crisis. Instead of songs of praise, creation moans and groans under the weight of consumption and human sin. Paul pronounces:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

As London bakes and the Pacific Northwest prepares for temperatures higher than ever, creation groans. As wildfires ravage Europe and the western United States, St. Louis floods, and sea levels continue to rise, creation cries out. As Lake Mead, the source of water and electricity for a vast swath of the Western United States gets closer and closer to being a dead pool (only 150 feet to go), creation gasps. And what do we do? Nothing.

One lone senator who is looking out for the coal money that supports him derails efforts to do something in congress. Countless people around the world, and especially here in the United States, still think there is no problem. AP reports:

“The tragedy of this is that all over social media, you can see tens of millions of Americans who think scientists are lying, even about things that have been proven for decades,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University who has written about the history of climate change disinformation. “They’ve been persuaded by decades of disinformation. The denial is really, really deep.” And persistent. Just last month, even with record heat in London, raging wildfires in Alaska and historic flooding in Australia, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a pro-fossil fuel thank tank, said all the scientists had it wrong. “There is no climate crisis,” the group wrote in its newsletter.

There are biblical parallels to this kind of response to an approaching disaster. The prophets pleaded, called, cried, and yelled at the people of Israel and Judah to open their eyes to see the coming destruction that would result from turning away from God. They would not listen. Judgment came.

Now, I am not suggesting that God, like some Hollywood tough guy, is going to use some terrible miracle to punish. No, God’s judgment comes by our own hands. God has established creation and its balance is maintained through faithful love and stewardship. When we go crazy (as we have) the consequences of nature will be our doing, and God will weep. It is, nevertheless, judgment.

The science is clear. When the global average temperature rises by 1.5 – 2.0 degrees Celsius, things get bad. In theological terms, judgment comes. All our denial, all our claims that it costs too much or that it isn’t the right time will be laughable testaments to our foolishness and genuine lack of love for creation and the humanity of the next generations.

So, is there a word of grace in all this? Certainly. Note that Paul has named the children of God as those who bring about hope and redemption to the creation. The world in agony is waiting for Christ to redeem it, and that redemption is, at least in part, in our power. None of us can, by ourselves, solve these massive problems. Nor can we see a way ahead that will not bring changes, and even pain. But, together, with the cross and resurrection clearly in view, we can do what is within our reach today and work toward the coming reign of a God who brings life instead of the death we have wrought.

Image by ELG21 from Pixabay

Previously published by Holy Trinity Lutheran Church 2022

copyright 2022 by Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved