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

Religion is Evil?

religionsIt has become popular to lay all of the suffering of the world at the feet of religion claiming, “It’s all you fault!” Check in with any of the various neo-atheist or “spiritual but not religious” voices you may hear and you are likely to hear this criticism laced with various degrees of vitriol. After all, it is said, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and colonial conquest were all carried out under the banner of religion. Religious fundamentalism as expressed by Branch Davidians, Jonestown, and radical jihadists have created violence and suffering in the name of God. The Church has done significant harm to individuals and whole groups of people because they were deemed inferior or unfaithful. All this is true. It is shameful.

Lillian Daniel, in her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, says this line of argument seems a little like saying that all roads are bad (and should be banned) because of the helpless creatures that fall victim to traffic. “…don’t point out roadkill and then tell me that `the road’ has it in for bunnies, deer and armadillos.” (p. 17).  Yes indeed, people have used the name of God to justify all sorts of suffering and evil. But then, people have found ways to slaughter millions in the name of not believing in God, too.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries three substitutes for religion emerged as the basis for new identities. One was the nation-state. A second was the ideological system. The third was race. The first led to two world wars, the second to Stalin’s Russia, the Gulag and the KGB, and the third to the Holocaust. The cost of these three substitutes for religion was in excess of a hundred million lives.” 

The source of evil in the world is not religion, government, or any other human institution in and of themselves. It is the human element that corrupts. Our innate desire to have power over others and to justify ourselves at the expense of someone else, what the church calls “original sin,” is what corrupts. While the Crusades were taking place, St. Francis of Assisi was helping birth a reform of the church. The punishing fundamentalism of the Inquisition finally gave way to the Reformation. The struggle between good and evil does take place on the world stage. Through fundamentalism and manipulation, many co-opt the traditions of the faithful (which is religion), for evil purposes. The war, however, is rooted in every human heart. All of us are capable of great evil in the name of something. Religion is neither ultimate evil or ultimate good. The variable is that, as Luther taught, humans are simultaneously saints and sinners, good and evil, all rolled into one. So, human institutions will be the same.

To think that evil and suffering would abate if religion disappeared is to believe that something other than human will drives a great deal of the suffering of the world. I think this is naive. The appeal to science and technology as the “salvation” of humanity is to ignore that every great advance and progress humanity claims has also been co-opted to kill and destroy. Industrialization was manifest in the trenches, tanks, chemical weapons and machine guns of the First World War. Nuclear fission paved the way to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the second

Finding our human identity as beings rooted in the source of being; releasing ourselves from the tyranny of constant comparison, self-justification and self-hate is the only way to address the evil and suffering around us. For more time than we have measured, that undertaking has been a healthy religious undertaking.

Peace to you.


copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson